Impact Series

UW and Microsoft launch contact-tracing app, aiming to battle COVID-19 whereas preserving privateness

CovidSafe, created through a partnership between the University of Washington and Microsoft, was released today as a demonstration app for Android.

Microsoft and University of Washington researchers have teamed up on a new app that promises to alert people automatically if they’ve been in close proximity to someone infected by COVID-19, seeking to strike a balance between the sometimes competing interests of personal privacy and public health.

The app, called CovidSafe, is the latest attempt to use technology to support contact tracing, the practice of identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. The approach is seen as a key strategy for containing the disease — particularly in the absence of a vaccine.

“It’s the most critical thing if you want to get the economy back on track,” said Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering and a leader on the project. “We need to aggressively do testing and aggressively do contact tracing.”

This morning, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans for a regional contact tracing program with $10 million in support from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will also help develop the program. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee yesterday announced an initiative to have 1,500 people conducting contact tracing by mid-May.

CovidSafe, released today as a “demonstration app,” is designed to help with both manual tracing, where a public health official interviews someone who has coronavirus to determine with whom they’ve been in contact; and automated tracking, which uses devices like smartphones to follow who’s been in close proximity with whom, and notify people of an exposure.

When a person tests positive for coronavirus, health officials will ask them to recall where they’ve been and whom they’ve been near over the previous two weeks. But it can be difficult to remember that information, particularly given how days blur in the absence of normal routines for work and school. The app will help users access the GPS-based location data that our phones are already gathering, and share that with health workers.

Then health officials will be able to post notifications to a digital message board, saying that an infected person was, for example, at Seattle’s Gas Works Park on the morning of April 18. The app will be able to scan the notices, cross-reference your phone’s data, and alert you if you were in the area during that time.

“The most important thing is that all of your data is going to stay on your phone,” said Sham Kakade, a professor in the UW’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and the Department of Statistics, who is also leading the project.

For automated, proximity-based tracking, the UW-led project is harnessing information generated by radio-wave Bluetooth signals. Bluetooth-enabled phones are able to send and receive signals within about 30 feet. The app broadcasts a random number that is received and recorded by another phone running the app. If someone tests positive, that person can share the random numbers that their phone sent out with healthcare providers, allowing the app on other phones to look for a match and notify the user that they may have been exposed.

Shyam Gollakota, associate professor in the UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, and a leader on a project to develop a contact-tracing app. (UW / Jose Mandojana Photo)

In both cases, the app would require verification of an infection by a public health official before sending notifications, to prevent the malicious spread of misinformation.

Everyone’s identity in the exchanges remains anonymous.

Other contact-tracing projects are also using Bluetooth technology, including a joint effort recently announced by Apple and Google. Additional app-based initiatives include COVID Trace and Antidote, both from Seattle; Singapore’s TraceTogether; the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing project in Europe; COVID Watch in California and Safe Paths in Massachusetts. Another team with Seattle connections is working on a contact-tracing project called NextTrace. (See GeekWire’s earlier coverage here and here.)

Gollakota and Kakade emphasized that CovidSafe is being developed with a multidisciplinary team in consultation with public health officials to make sure they’re meeting their needs.

Since each state has it’s own healthcare system, “we are talking to various health officials across the country to get this integrated with their systems,” Gollakota said.

Microsoft initiated the partnership with the UW, and the project launched during the first week of March. About 10 UW faculty and graduate students are working on it, and dozens of Microsoft employees have volunteered hundreds of hours to the project.

CovidSafe is available to download for Android phones on the project’s website, and a version for Apple iOS will be released in the coming days.

Sham Kakade, professor in the UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the Department of Statistics, who also leading the project. (UW Photo)

John Langford, a partner researcher at Microsoft Research New York and project volunteer, wrote in a recent blog post that digital contact-tracing tools will need to overcome multiple hurdles to succeed.

For proximity-based contact tracing to work, a majority of the population needs to own smartphones and voluntarily use the app — unless the government were to make the action mandatory, which would create thorny legal issues. Users would also always need to carry their phones, turned on and with Bluetooth enabled.

As Langford explains, even if 10% of the population used a contact-tracing app — a rate typically achieved only with hugely popular apps — just 1% of contacts would be discovered this way, given that both people need to be using the tool.

“Hence, people advocating for proximity approaches must either hope for pervasive mandatory use (which will still miss sub-communities without smartphones) or accept that proximity approaches are only a part of the picture,” Langford wrote.

That’s why the CovidSafe app also incorporates tools that support manual tracing done by health officials.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Location- and proximity-based apps raise serious privacy concerns — which CovidSafe’s creators say they’ve tried to address. In addition to not collecting the data and instead leaving it on a person’s phone, the app is open source and does not require that a third party manage and control the information. The team submitted an academic paper titled “PACT: Privacy Sensitive Protocols and Mechanisms for Mobile Contact Tracing” to discuss these issues.

Part of their goal, said the project leaders, is to create something socially responsible that respects civil liberties in a manner that other countries have not.

“Many other places, they are not acting like open democracies,” Kakade said. But that doesn’t need to be the case. “Open democracies can suppress the pandemic.”

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