New smartphone features could notify users if exposed to COVID-19

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The latest updates for smartphones running on Apple or Android operating systems include a new feature - COVID-19 exposure logging.

Essentially, once activated, phones will exchange information any time their users come within a distance of less than 6 feet. That information will be stored on your phone, where you have the option to agree to share it with government and health authories. The result -- anyone who comes into contact with a smartphone user who is registered as having COVID-19 will receive a notification.

Some have argued that this new feature gives companies too much access to their private information. In truth - the app will not actually track your location; however, it would know if and when you meet up with another smartphone user.

At least for iPhone owners, the feature is initially turned off upon updating your device to iOS 13.5. There is also notification which informs users that an authorized app is required to activate the notification system. Phones with these capabilities will store a log of exposed phones for up to 14 days.

Since the pandemic began, cyber-scamming and electronic fraud have seen a big uptick. Local IT Security Consultant Leon Jaimes says that similar third party apps could actually be a well-hidden attempt at getting your personal information.

"Users are very susceptible to phishing attempts right now," he said. "People imitating some legitimate application, I think that's a really big concern - that people could be tricked into sending their data because someone sends them a malicious message that they have been exposed or something like that."

Jaimes says the best defense is to keep your devices up to date with the latest security patches, but to be mindful of changes like the new COVID exposure logging feature. You can usually opt out of certain requests for your user information.

Meanwhile, the State of Alaska's Division of Public Health is preparing to roll out some new software of its own, but it has very little to do with your smartphone.

While the Department of Health and Social Services is aware of the new platforms being rolled out by Google and Apple, collecting and analyzing such data is not a part of the plan at this time. Instead, the state will be increasing the number of trained human COVID tracers that are available, and a data analysis application called CommCare will be used to streamline the process of address issues related to the tracing of confirmed COVID-19 carriers.

"One thing the CommCare app will do is give us more real time information," said Tari O'Connor, Deputy Director of the Division of Public Health.

She says CommCare will allow data entry and analysis that can help state workers better understand trends related to COVID-19 in Alaska ... Things like the average number of contacts per case -or- the actual capacity of Alaska's current workforce, in terms of how many cases a worker can reasonably handle.

Sean Armstrong is the Deputy Chief of the Section of Public Health Nursing. He says that the hope is that CommCare will be implemented in the near future, but there's ground work to be done before the system can launched. While the state has had the advantage of low cases counts so so far, this new system and more tracers will allow the state to continue to respond quickly, in the event that reopening that state to business and travel does lead to a spike in cases.

"Once we do have some one identified, our process is to immediately reach out, he said. "So far we've been able to successful complete that outreach within 2 hours, in 95% of our cases."

Right now, the state has around 130 trained COVID tracers, but the goal is to eventually have 500 people ready step in as needed. A training program is in the works, tentatively set to roll out during the second week of June.

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