WA Notify reaches 1.2 million users, privacy and tech expert weighs in

A week after the launch of WA Notify, the Washington Department of Health reported Monday that 1.2 million users have signed up for it by enabling the notifications or downloading the app.

Some experts, however, say the effectiveness of COVID-19 exposure notification tools is still unproven. And Washington state may not ever know just how effective the tool is.

“I like to see the evidence,” Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Law, said. “What’s the evidence that something’s working? And I’ve yet to really see that with digital contact tracing.”

Calo is a privacy expert who studies emerging technology. He co-directs a UW lab bridging computer science, information science and law. From a privacy standpoint, he has no issues with WA Notify, calling the tool “safe.”

When you’re near someone with WA Notify, your phones exchange totally random codes via Bluetooth, with no location tracking or release of personal information.

“It doesn’t store anyone’s location information anywhere; it doesn’t have a central repository,” he said. “All the system does is tell you if this identifier was near this identifier and then notify the ones that were.”

But Calo points out that the tool leaves out people without smartphones.

“By the way, those may disproportionately be people who are the most vulnerable,” he said. “Let’s say — that they’re very poor or they’re older.”

If you test positive, a contact tracer gives you a verification code that you need to enter into WA Notify. That sends an anonymous alert to people who have been near you for a significant amount of time in the last 14 days. The WA Department of Health describes an exposure as being within about 6 feet for 15 minutes or more during a person’s contagious period.

“There may be many situations in which you get notified, and you weren’t really exposed,” Calo said. “You were with somebody who had COVID, but you were both wearing masks and outside.”

And KIRO 7 discovered Washington state won’t know how many people are actually taking that step of entering their verification codes to alert others.

When asked about the number of codes issued by the local health jurisdiction, the Department of Health stated it is not tracking where these codes were issued, how many were issued or how many verification codes have been entered.

“I would actually like to see that data gathered,” Calo said.

In a recent briefing, health officials emphasized the importance of contact tracers connecting with people.

“Have that conversation about, ‘Are you using the WA Notify app?’” WA Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. “And if you are, make sure we’re walking through with them how to enter their verification code and talk to them about any concerns they might have about that.”

Calo said he worries about people believing too much in technology.

“Your civic duty is not discharged just by uploading something to the system,” he said. “Really, what you ought to be doing is checking in with the people you have contact with, telling your employees and co-workers, telling your loved ones.”

He said WA Notify could be a helpful tool in our toolkits for fighting COVID-19, but we shouldn’t forget the tools that have proved to be effective.

“Avoid indoor gatherings, wear a mask, stay a distance away from people and be vigilant,” he said.