Alabamians have a new weapon against COVID-19 this Labor Day weekend that they didn’t have the past two holiday weekends when cases spiked, and officials are urging that the more who use it, the better.
The launch of the GuideSafe Notification App helps people know if they’ve been in proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 – all through an anonymous and secure “handshake” between smartphones.
Because it relies on smartphones communicating with smartphones, the more people who use the free app, the better.
Dr. Sue Feldman, professor and director of Health Informatics Graduate Programs at UAB, is one of the experts calling for wider adoption of the GuideSafe app. She said if each member of a given family or group would encourage everyone in their family or group to download and use the app, it would give Alabama the kind of coverage it needs to help control the spread of COVID-19.
“The reason why this is important for people in our state to adopt is because if we want to get back to doing the things that we love to do – even outdoor events, indoor events, concerts, football games – this would help us be a lot safer together,” she said.
For instance, Feldman said if 20,000 attendees of a college football game download the app and take it to their separate groups and have them download the app, and so on, the numbers start making a difference.
“You can kind of visualize how that creates an exponential uptick of adoption across the state,” she said. “And then before we know it, we all have it, we’re all protected, we get back to going to the theater, going to sporting events, football, going to concerts and things like that.”
Getting there requires Alabamians to download the app and use it.
“Eventually you’re going to have exponential protection throughout the state,” Feldman said. “That’s how it works. The issue is we have to get it there.”
Supported by federal coronavirus aid bill funding, the GuideSafe Exposure Notification App was built by UAB and Birmingham-based MotionMobs in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and integrating Google‘s and Apple‘s Exposure Notification System (ENS).
Even though Alabama is one of the first states in the nation to roll out an exposure notification app using Apple and Android smartphones, people in the state are traditionally private and protective. Feldman said there should be no concerns in using the GuideSafe app because it is private and secure.
“One thing that you notice when you download the GuideSafe app is that you download it and that’s it,” she said. “It doesn’t ask for access to your contact list. It doesn’t ask for access to your calendar. It doesn’t ask for access to your social media.”
In fact, the very first screen after downloading the GuideSafe app and opening it is a privacy screen laying out the online protections.
“The app does not know your location,” Feldman said. “It doesn’t know where you are. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t know your name. In fact, it never asks for your name.”
Then how does it work?
Think of it as an electronic handshake between smartphones with the app using encrypted keys via Bluetooth.
“The app never tracks where you are, just proximity to others that are using the app,” said Brian Rivers, chief technology officer at UAB. “There is no identifying information that is shared in those keys or when you initially establish the app at all.”
Once a positive test result is reported by someone using the app, the information gets distributed to all phones that had been in proximity to the person with that phone in the past 14 days. All of this is based on that key that was exchanged, not on any identifiable information about the actual person or people.
Feldman said when a person reports a positive test in GuideSafe, it asks for their phone number, but only for security purposes so it can verify a real person with a real positive test result. Your phone number is paired with a code that matches to a positive test result at the lab. It’s important to use your cellphone number when you are tested so the two phone numbers will match up.
It’s a security measure that Rivers helped develop and is patent pending. Rivers said the plan is to be able to share it with other states.
After all, wide adoption of GuideSafe is the goal.