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Starting Tuesday, iPhone and Android users can start using D.C.’s new contact tracing technology: D.C. COVID Alert Notice, or DC CAN. The technology notifies individuals if they came into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, so long as the person who got sick contacted the local health agency and consented to using DC CAN. 

iPhone users will actually receive a notification on Tuesday, asking them if they want to turn on the technology through their phones’ settings without having to download an application. Users can also just go to settings and click “Exposure Notifications” to proactively opt in. 

Android users will also be prompted to use DC CAN, but they’ll have to download an app from the Google Play store. Make sure to select “Washington, D.C.” to participate in DC CAN. Not every state is using the Exposure Notifications System created by Google and Apple, including Maryland and Virginia. But our neighbors are working to launch the technology very soon.  

The technology is not intended for anyone under age 13, per DC Health.

Contact tracing gets better the more people decide to use the technology. DC Health’s investigators struggle to get people who tested positive to provide their close contacts. Less than 50 percent of positive cases provide close contact information during manual contact tracing efforts. Technology-supported contact tracing could help.    

How does it work? 

Once you consent to using the technology or download the app, the Exposure Notifications System will create a random ID associated with your phone. D.C. government officials assure everyone that the ID cannot be used to identify any one user or their location, and the ID changes every 10 to 20 minutes. A user’s phone periodically checks IDs they came into close contact with against anonymous IDs associated with COVID-19. 

Let’s say you spend the afternoon with someone, and you are a few feet apart. If you both opted to use DC CAN, your phones are exchanging IDs via Bluetooth as you both chat. If DC Health diagnoses the person you were with with COVID-19 within 14 days of hanging out and that individual inserts a code provided by a contact tracer into DC CAN, you’ll be notified that you have been exposed to someone who tested positive. The individual will not be named.   

Privacy concerns? 

To repeat, DC CAN does not track your location. It uses Bluetooth, not GPS. 

The technology also does not share the names of anyone who tests positive, similar to manual contact tracing efforts. And DC CAN only stores a person’s code or “Temporary Exposure Key” should they test positive and insert this information into their phone for at most 30 days, per DC Health. 

Civil liberties advocates called on the D.C. government to depend on Bluetooth proximity data rather than geolocation if they opted to automate contact tracing efforts in any way. They also called on the government to make it voluntary. The government seemed to heed their advice. 

More information on privacy and security can be found here

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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