By Shereen Siewert
Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday announced a contact tracing app will go live in Wisconsin next week, though privacy concerns have so far resulted in low adoption rates of such efforts nationwide.
WI Exposure Notification is an app that uses Bluetooth technology. Beginning next week, the app will be available for download in the Google Play Store. For iPhone users, the app can be switched on in the phone’s settings.
“We’re excited about this app’s potential to enhance our state’s response to COVID-19,” Evers said. “The voluntary WI Exposure Notification app is another tool in our toolbox to stop the spread. Because it lets you know faster if you’ve been in close contact with someone who’s tested positive, you can take steps to keep yourself safe and protect those around you. Also, the app doesn’t collect or use device location, so users will remain anonymous.”
But not everyone is convinced that users will remain anonymous. Six in ten people surveyed doubted the tracking apps would make a difference in limiting the spread of the virus, while 54 percent found government tracking unacceptable altogether, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults.
“The problem is that for contact tracing to work, you need 80% of the people to use it,” said France Belanger, PhD, one of the lead researchers on the study and professor at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech.
State officials say Wisconsin’s app does not use, collect, or store any GPS data or personal details but uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously share signals with other smartphones using the app nearby.
All people in Wisconsin who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a code that users enter into the app, officials said. By entering the code, the person who tests positive anonymously notifies devices their phone has shared Bluetooth signals with during the period of time they may have been contagious. For the app to work properly, Bluetooth must be enabled on the device, and the WI Exposure Notification app must be downloaded and/or enabled before you receive a positive test result.
State officials say contact tracing, whether by interview or app, is crucial to notify people who don’t know they’ve been exposed to the virus so they can isolate.
“The more people who use the app, the more effective it will be, just like the public health measures we’ve been talking about throughout this pandemic,” said Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm.
But such efforts always involve at least some tradeoff between privacy and public health.
The WI Exposure Notification app will launch Dec. 23. Wisconsin residents with smartphones will receive a push notification within a few days of the system going live with instructions on how to download or enable the app.