Minnesota rolls out new app for COVID exposure alerts

A man wearing a suit and tie speaks
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks from the Governor's Reception room at the State Capitol, to discuss the latest steps in his response to COVID-19 on Nov. 18 in St. Paul.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

Updated 1:45 p.m.

Minnesota leaders began pushing a new smartphone application on Monday that would alert users to potential exposure to COVID-19 based on technology that they say will also keep personal information private.

The COVIDaware MN application, similar to those in use in several other states, depends on people downloading the program and sending out an alert if they test positive for the virus. Neither will happen automatically for smartphone users.

Walz urged Minnesotans to download the app, calling it important to the state’s overall effort to fight the spread of the disease. “We can’t let our guard down,” he said. “If everything’s done right, you will never have to use this (app).”

Officials stressed repeatedly that the app is voluntary to use and does not track the user’s location.

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"The app is entirely opt-in," said MN IT Services Commissioner Tarek Tomes. "The app does not track location nor does it use GPS. It doesn't share your identity.”

The program matches phone proximity information to daily lists of positive cases. There are safeguards built in to prevent people from falsely claiming a COVID-19 infection just to cause panic. To trigger a notification, a person who’s tested positive must enter a verification code they receive from a public health authority.

The warnings will include health recommendations for people to take steps if exposed. It doesn't tell users precise times or locations where they might have been exposed.

For those concerned about medical privacy of themselves or others, the app is built on voluntary participation and a level of encryption that separates the identities of users from the data they supply.

“State never collects or processes any personally identifiable information from the COVIDaware MN app,” the privacy policy says. “Random codes are assigned to each device using the COVIDaware MN app.”

The random codes assigned to a person’s phone expire after 14 days.

According to the developers, it does not use location data or depend on connection to a WiFi or cellular connection, although some features require them. Instead, it’s based on Bluetooth functionality.

The state developed the application along with the PathCheck Foundation and relies on notification technology from Apple and Google.

Minnesota is in a public health consortium in which this app would work in tandem with the same framework in other places, so when a person travels to another state, the app works in those areas and would notify people with a different state's app and vice versa, Tomes added.

“Every little bit that we can do to put an end to this virus is so important,” he said.

Walz said he understood the sensitivity of sharing location and health data on smartphone networks but that the app offered a secure way for Minnesotans to help stem COVID19’s spread.

“There's no data tracking. There's no data collected. There's no data sent to the Minnesota Department of Health or to Google, to Apple, to anyone,” he said.