Covid exposure apps

Explainers

Exposed with Covid Exposure Apps

November 18th, 2020

Covid exposure apps may steer you from danger, but the Bluetooth technology they use can chip away at your privacy. Here’s how the apps work, and what you should be thinking about if you use one.

Most Covid exposure apps rely on Bluetooth technology, a system that enables two devices near one another to exchange information wirelessly. Using Bluetooth, exposure apps can tell whether anyone you encounter while running errands tests positive for Covid.

But with that benefit come liabilities. Walking around with your phone’s Bluetooth activated leaves behind a vivid set of digital footprints. Any number of companies would be interested in tracking them.

How to Use Covid Exposure Apps

To get started, you’ll need to see whether your state or region offers a Covid exposure app. Once you download the app, turn on Exposure Notification within your iPhone’s settings menu to begin receiving important updates. 

With the app enabled, your iPhone exchanges a random code with other phones that have the app, for tracing purposes. Once an app user tests positive for Covid, local health departments can alert anyone who’s had close contact with the infected individual. All data is anonymized. You’ll know you were near someone who tested positive for Covid, but you won’t know who that person is.

Privacy and Safety Considerations

Since Covid exposure apps rely on random codes to track exposure, your name or phone number is never exchanged with third parties. Compared to a visit to a restaurant that requests your phone number and name for tracing purposes, it’s decidedly more private.

But don’t forget: When your Bluetooth is on, you’re sharing a whole lot of information about yourself. Stores use Bluetooth beacons, for example, to connect to your phone and determine how long you linger in one aisle or another. That information is valuable; someone makes money on it, and it isn’t you.

Covid exposure apps are useful and may well help you stay healthy. If you use one, check your phone’s settings. Be sure other apps aren’t using your Bluetooth signal to broadcast your personal information.

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