Testing positive for Covid requires sending a whole lot of notifications

At the start of last weekend, two negative Covid tests in a row had me thinking that my sore throat was the result of too much conference socializing or maybe a summer cold. But then I self-tested one more time Sunday night, because I was set to fly to Denver the next afternoon for the Stream TV Show–and that positive result has since led to my having to notify more people than I might have imagined.

An Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow Covid-19 rapid antigen test shows the two strips that indicate a positive result.

That list started with the toughest case: my wife and my kid, from whom I’d have to isolate at home until no longer testing positive. Fortunately, in-house quarantine is easier to manage in the spring when you can open every window for maximum ventilation and eat every meal on the front or back porch.

Next I had to e-mail the organizers of my now-foregone conference. I said I’d cancel my flights and keep that trip credit handy for their next event, after which I’d complete my outline for my panel and e-mail those notes to whoever might step in for me. They were okay with that.

Then I e-mailed the people I’d spent the most time talking to at last week’s WithSecure conference in Helsinki. (The organizers had covered my airfare and hotel, but I’m not sure I can call that travel “free” now.) None of them have written back to say that they’ve since tested positive, which makes me wonder if I’d been in the wrong square meter of indoor space for the wrong 15 minutes.

After that, I sent a note to the organizers of Dublin Tech Summit, where I’m supposed to speak next week. I advised them that while I was reasonably optimistic that I’d get past this and resume testing negative by this weekend, I couldn’t guarantee that. They wished me luck.

Screenshot of the COVIDWISE app for Android that shows the screen on which you enter an eight-digit verification code to sumit a positive test result.

My last act of notification didn’t invove conversations with actual humans. After getting an official PCR test Monday and receiving the results early Tuesday along with confirmation that they’d been reported to the Virginia Department of Health, I had to share them anonymously with VDH’s COVIDWISE exposure-notification app. That would allow other people with smartphones running Apple and Google’s privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework to get warnings of their potential exposure if this software concluded they’d been sufficiently close to me for sufficiently long, as judged by algorithms computing randomized Bluetooth beacons.

The e-mail and text I got from the test operator Curative didn’t say how I would do that. But the app itself explained that I had to visit a VDH page and plug in my last name, birth date and test date to get a verification code that I could then type into the app. That’s “type,” not “copy and paste,” because this Android app refused the latter form of input.

My wife reported that her copy of COVIDWISE pushed a notification of the possible exposure nine hours later. But the more important thing is that no other sort of Covid notification has greeted her or our kid since then. Five days after first testing positive and entering my little house arrest–during which my sore throat and nasal congestion have vanished as the positive strip on my recent tests has begun to look notably lighter than on earlier tests–I remain the only person in the family to have exhibited any symptoms this month or tested positive ever.

A long wait for an app notification

Twenty-one months ago, I installed the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app on my smartphone and urged everybody reading that post in Virginia to go and do likewise. Back in August of 2020, I expected that this app developed with the Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notifications framework would soon be warning me that I’d been near somebody else who had tested positive and had then used this app or another built on that foundation to send a thoroughly anonymized warning.

But the notifications of possible exposures didn’t appear, even as the U.S. suffered repeated waves of novel-coronavirus variants and the positive-test rate in Northern Virginia shot up above 30 percent at the start of this year. And as I got my first vaccination, second vaccination and booster shot, the continued silence of this app bothered me less and less–to the point that I briefly forgot to activate it after moving from my Pixel 3a to my Pixel 5a.

That silence ended Thursday morning, when my smartphone greeted me with a notification of a probable exposure. “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “COVIDWISE estimates that you were last exposed 5 days ago.”

The app further informed me that “Most people who are fully vaccinated and free of COVID-like symptoms do not need to quarantine or be tested after an exposure.” Fortunately, I had already self-tested negative on an antigen at-home kit Wednesday morning to verify my health before heading to the Hack the Capitol security conference.

Because this app and others built on the Apple/Google code don’t store location data, I can only wonder when this possible exposure happened. And since five days ago was Saturday, when I flew home from Latvia via Munich and then Boston, I’m looking at thousands of miles of possibility. A second notification from COVIDWISE referencing North Carolina’s SlowCOVIDNC app suggests that my possible exposure source lives there, but the privacy-preserving design of this system ensures I’ll never know for sure.

A five-day turnaround, however, now seems quick after seeing three people reply to my tweet about this notification to report that they didn’t get their own heads-up from one of these exposure-notification apps until 10 days after the possible exposure–a uselessly long lag. My conclusion from those data points: Get vaccinated and boosted, because that will do more than anything else you could possibly undertake to ensure that receiving one of these exposure alerts remains a drama-free experience.

Weekly output: Ranking Digital Rights, COVID-19 exposure-notification apps, mass-media misinformation

This week saw me wrap up writing for one large project that’s at least a few weeks away from publication. Still a good feeling to cross that off the to-do list.

Screenshot of the story, as shown in an iPad's copy of Safari2/24/2021:This new digital rights report flunks the tech giants, Fast Company

Participating in a panel discussion in January that featured Ranking Digital Rights director Jessica Dheere reminded me that this group was working on its latest assessment of how tech and telecom firms around the world support human rights. And then I almost forgot to follow up with RDR a month later to get an advance copy of the report.

2/24/2021: COVID-19 exposure warnings for iPhone, Android phones: Apps still await widespread adoption, USA Today

This column was originally going to run a week earlier, but we set it aside to cover changes to password managers. The numbers I got from the Virginia Department of Health about adoption of a simplified iOS exposure-notification option jumped dramatically over that time; I can’t complain about a delay in publication that gives me a chance to tell more of a story.

2/24/2021: The Point A House Hearing Almost Missed About How TV News Keeps Making Us Angry And Dumb, Forbes

I spent three and a half hours of my Wednesday watching this hearing of the House Energy & Commerce Committee–ostensibly about how pay-TV providers prop up the right-wing propagandists at Newsmax, One America News and the Fox News commentariat, although the members rarely stuck to that script–so you didn’t have to.

Weekly output: password managers, exposure-notification apps, talking tech with Mark Vena

Six months ago, I expected to be busy tonight packing for the IFA tech trade show. But although that conference in Berlin is proceeding on a drastically-scaled-down basis, I’m not flying to Germany tomorrow because of the European Union’s ban on Americans traveling to the EU. Given how thoroughly we’ve botched this pandemic, I can’t blame them for imposing that restriction.

8/24/2020: Extra security or extra risk? Pros and cons of password managers, TechRepublic

I shared my experience with password managers–mainly LastPass and 1Password–with TechRepublic’s Veronica Combs for this overview of the advantages and disadvantages of these services.

8/25/2020: COVID-19 tracking apps, supported by Apple and Google, begin showing up in app stores, USA Today

Writing a lengthy report for O’Reilly about contact-tracing apps did not mean I could write this much shorter piece from memory and my existing notes. In addition to getting useful adoption data from Virginia’s Department of Public Health about its COVIDWISE app, I also reported that VDH plans to support a national key-server project from the Association of Public Health Laboratories that will let these state-developed apps relay and receive warnings of potential COVID-19 exposure across state lines.

8/28/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (8-28-20), Mark Vena

I talked about exposure-notification apps, the future of tech events like IFA, 5G wireless and Apple silicon with my analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy–another tech type who would have been packing for Berlin tonight but is instead grounded. You may notice a break in the recording about halfway through, when I had to get a glass of water so I could resume speaking normally. Note to self: Before sitting down to record a 45-minute podcast, make sure a glass of water is on the desk.

Weekly output: exposure notification apps, Saudi dissidents exposed by Twitter breach, social platforms and politicians

Facing yet another weekend with little to set itself apart from those before, I homebrewed a batch of beer Friday night. Those four hours of work mean I can spend another three hours bottling all this ale next weekend–but then I should have about five gallons of beer taking up space in the basement.

8/17/2020: Privacy Optimization Meets Pandemic Tracking, O’Reilly Media

The report on coronavirus-tracing apps that I filed in draft form in early July–the first assignment I’ve had since college to be budgeted in terms of pages instead of words or column inches–finally got published. You can download a free copy of this 19-page evaluation of the potential of mobile software built on the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API by providing a minimal level of employer-related data.

8/19/2020: Twitter breach led to arrests of Saudi dissidents, Al Jazeera

The Qatar-based news network had me on to discuss Ryan Gallagher’s report for Bloomberg about how a 2015 case of Saudi spies working at Twitter led to arrests of dissidents in Saudi Arabia. The point I made–which hopefully came through in the live overdubbing into Arabic–is that Twitter can’t allow completely anonymous use if it’s going to police fake accounts, so it needs to ensure that only well-vetted employees can see the personally identifying information of its users.

8/20/2020: We Think Social Platforms Censor Political Views. Because Politicians Want Us To., Forbes

President Trump served up a news peg for this writeup of a study from the Pew Research Center about perceptions of social platforms’ treatment of political speech, and not just by posting his usual complaints about the unfairness of Twitter. Instead, he essentially played footsie in a Wednesday-evening press conference with the QAnon conspiracy-theory cult that Twitter and Facebook now rightly consider harmful.