Michigan’s Contact Tracing App ‘MI COVID Alert’ is Designed with Privacy Concerns in Mind

Like any measure related to stopping the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask and social distancing, the number of lives saved will change depending on how many people get on board with the app.

The promising COVID-19 vaccines that are going into production aren’t here yet. As the public awaits the end of the pandemic, measures are being employed to try to control the spread of the virus.

One tool that’s recently been released in Michigan is the MI COVID Alert App, a contact tracing tool for mobile phones.

Click on the audio player above to hear about Michigan’s new COVID-19 contact tracing app.

“It’ll show you a home screen that shows when it was last run, when it was last checked for any potential exposures,” says Rochester Hills resident Corey Rowe, one of the people who has started using the app.

MI COVID Alert was launched statewide by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in early November. The contact tracing tool lets users know if they’ve spent 15 minutes or more within about 6 feet of another user who’s tested positive for COVID-19.

“I downloaded it because it’s a safety thing for me. And I think it should be for any Michigander, too,” says Rowe.

“And basically what the app does is, it says to the other app, ‘Hey, I see you. Do you see me?’ And the other app says, ‘Yes, I see you. Do you see me?’” – MSU Professor Shawn Turner on how the MI COVID Alert app works

He says the app is easy to use and he hasn’t noticed an additional drain on his battery while MI COVID Alert runs in the background. “You don’t really even use it. It’s kind of set it and forget it,” says Rowe.

How It Works

Like traditional contact tracing, this app is not designed to prevent real-time COVID exposures. Its purpose is to let people know, after the fact, that they may have been exposed to someone with the virus so they can quarantine, get tested, and stop the spread of the disease.

The technology was created as part of a joint venture between Apple and Google. The companies wanted to offer states like Michigan a contact tracing tool that’s privacy-friendly.

“This app uses Bluetooth,” says Shawn Turner, professor of strategic communication at Michigan State University. Turner led the launch of the app as part of a pilot at MSU back in October. “And basically what the app does is, it says to the other app, ‘Hey, I see you. Do you see me?’ And the other app says, ‘Yes, I see you. Do you see me?’ And the apps go back and forth that way for 15 minutes.”

Turner says once two apps have been in contact for 15 minutes, they exchange randomly generated numbers with each other.

“Now the app doesn’t know who the phone belongs to. It doesn’t know where those people are physically located. All the app knows is that there is another app within six feet of the app that’s sending out the signal and that they’ve been in close proximity to one another for 15 minutes,” says Turner.

Later, if one of the app users tests positive for COVID-19, the state will give them a unique PIN number. The user anonymously enters the PIN into their phone. That will alert other app users who have been in close contact that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. But the alert won’t disclose names or say where the exposure took place.

Limitations of the App

Turner says the app does a good job of addressing the privacy concerns that he heard from students and staff at MSU when he surveyed them before the app was released there. But he admits the tool has its limitations.

“If people don’t get tested, the app can’t work. When people do get tested, if they don’t have the app, obviously, it can’t work. If they do have the app, they have to be willing to enter their number and they have to be willing to click ‘share,’” says Turner.

Additionally, if someone gets an exposure notification but they don’t quarantine and get tested, then nothing happens to further control the spread of the virus.

Bob Wheaton, a Public Information Officer for MDHHS, says the app’s strength lies in its potential to alert people who contact tracers don’t have the ability to reach.

“Sometimes there may be somebody who tests positive for COVID-19 who has been at a gathering or something where they don’t know everybody. And it can be difficult to try to track down people in situations like this. But this way the phone app just does that automatically using technology,” says Wheaton.

That only works, however, in situations where everyone involved has the app.

Amount of Users Needed

Officials admit not everybody is going to get the app. In Virginia, three months after a similar contact tracing app launched, less than 9% of the state’s population had downloaded it. Yet, Wheaton says even if a small percentage of the people in Michigan use the app it could save lives.

“There was a study that was done by Oxford University that found the potential to reduce COVID-19 infections and deaths, even if only 15% of the population uses an exposure notification app,” says Wheaton.

The study, for the record, was done in conjunction with Stanford and Google, one of the developers behind the MI COVID Alert app’s technology.

Another report by Oxford University says the use of mobile contact tracing won’t control an epidemic that doesn’t have other strong prevention measures in place unless around 60% of the population downloads the app and uses it properly.

This app alone is not a silver bullet. But it does appear to be capable of preventing some people from being infected with COVID-19. Yet, like any measure — whether it’s wearing a mask, social distancing or downloading an exposure app — the number of lives saved will change depending on how many people get on board.

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  • Laura Herberg
    Laura Herberg is a Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here.