New statewide COVID Alert NY app informs New Yorkers of possible exposure

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DOT Commissioner Polly Trotterberg riding in the Sixth Avenue bike lane on Oct. 14. (Photo by Mark Hallum)

New York State rolled out on Thursday a new $700,000 app that will automatically inform users whether or not they have been exposed to someone testing positive for COVID-19.

Paid for by the Bloomberg Foundation, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that COVID Alert NY will protect the personal information of users while taking a load off the shoulders of the state’s contact tracing corp.

According to Larry Schwartz, a former high-ranking aid to the governor, this is achieved not through location services tied to smartphones but through the device’s Bluetooth proximity detection.

Once a person tests positive, they are given a code by the state Department of Health to punch into the app providing an anonymous alert to other devices that have been within six feet of the patient’s own smartphone for over ten minutes.

“This app will tell you if you were within six feet of a person who tested positive… for 10 minutes,” Cuomo said. “It doesn’t give names, doesn’t give any privacy info, you have to download the app.”

App code is open source and does not collect data, Schwartz said, in attempt to dispel alarm from New Yorkers who may be leery of state surveillance. The user must opt-in to use the app which is restricted to people 18 years and older.

“Anybody can go to the Linux Foundation, get the code and take a look at how the program actually works and you’ll see that we don’t collect any data. There’s no locator device on the app that can track whoever downloads the app at all. So we were very sensitive to making sure it was a secure database to get people to voluntarily download the app. Otherwise it doesn’t work,” Schwartz said. “We to great lengths, we had expert security people review the application to ensure that everything is confidential.”

Cuomo claimed that mitigating a potential data breach was one of the reasons why the app took a prolonged period of time to develop. The only data collected is the proximity of one individual to another, he said.

Similar technology has also been recently deployed by the state of Pennsylvania, but the New York-based app will facilitate contact tracing in New Jersey with Connecticut coming online soon, according to Cuomo.

The launch COVID Alert NY comes during a week when both the city and the state have been working to stamp out proverbial fires in 20 ZIP codes which have seen a rise in the infection rate that include a number in Brooklyn, bringing the citywide infection rate to about 1.52% on a seven-day average.

Download the COVID Alert NY app here for iPhones or here for Androids.