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Privacy 'at core' of new coronavirus exposure app launched by Health Department

To find out if you may have been exposed to COVID-19 all you need is your phone and a new app launched by state officials.

RICHMOND, Va. — Health department officials say the state's new coronavirus exposure app does not collect or share any personal data from users' phones. 

COVIDWISE lets you know if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. It was launched by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) on Wednesday.

VDH's Jeff Stover explained COVIDWISE does not use GPS or location services and no personal information is collected. It’s all anonymous.  

“Privacy is at the core of what this app is,” Stover said. 

COVIDWISE uses Bluetooth to determine your proximity to other people who have the app installed.  

“It’s using those radio waves. The same thing we use when we connect to our speaker in our car or in our house via our phone," Stover said. “There’s not location information. No personally identifiable information. None of that is part of this app. It’s completely anonymous and voluntary."

Virginia is the first state to use the technology with framework developed by tech giants Apple and Google. 

“We are paving the trail in the United States for this, right here in Virginia,” Stover said. “There’s been lots of misinformation in the media over the course of the last several months about what these kind of apps are doing and what they’re not doing. And there are apps out there that people are building that use location services, GPS, etc. We are not one of them.”

Here’s how it works: First you download and install the app, and enable exposure notifications. This will let the app share anonymous tokens with other users.  

Those tokens only collect data like date, time, and proximity. Nothing is linked to your identity or your location. 

If another user you’ve been nearby tests positive within 14 days, your app will notify you; and if you test positive, you can anonymously notify other users.

After you test positive at a testing site, hospital or clinic, or your doctor’s office, the Health Department will give you a six-digit pin to enter into the app.  

“That’s a verification process so we can avoid false reporting,” Stover said. 

It’s voluntary, so you can choose not to enter it if you don’t want to.

Stover said this is just another way Virginia is taking the lead in trying to slow the spread of COVID-19.