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.

My fellow Virginians, please install the COVIDWISE app. Now, thank you.

As the United States continues to flail away at the novel-coronavirus pandemic, my part of it has done one thing right. Wednesday morning, Virginia’s Department of Health launched COVIDWISE–the first digital contact-tracing app shipped in the U.S. on the privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework that Apple and Google co-developed this spring.

What that means is that COVIDWISE, available for iPhones running 13.5 or newer and most Android phones running Android 6.0 or newer, requires none of your data–not your name, not your number, not your e-mail, not even your phone’s electronic identifiers–to have it warn that you spent a sustained period of time close to somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19.

COVIDWISE and other apps built on the Apple/Google system instead send out randomized Bluetooth beacons every few minutes, store those sent by nearby phones running these apps, and flag those that indicate sufficiently extended proximity to allow for COVID-19 transmission as doctors understand it. That’s the important but often misunderstood point: All of the actual contact matching is done on individual phones by these apps–not by Apple, Google or any health authorities.

If a user of COVIDWISE tests positive and alerts this system by entering the code given them by a doctor or test lab into this app, that will trigger their copy of the app to upload its record of the last 14 days of those flagged close contacts–again, anonymized beyond even Apple or Google’s knowledge–to a VDH-run server. The health authority’s server will then send a get-tested alert to phones that had originally broadcast the beacons behind those detected contacts–once the apps on those devices do their daily check-ins online for any such warnings.

The U.S. is late to this game–Latvia shipped the first such app based on Apple and Google’s framework, Apturi Covid, in late May. In that time, the single biggest complaint about the Apple/Google project from healthcare professionals has been that it’s too private and doesn’t provide the names or locations that would ease traditional contact-tracing efforts.

I’m not writing this just off reading Apple and Google’s documentation; I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two months talking to outside experts for a long report on digital-contact-tracing apps. Please trust me on this; you should install COVIDWISE.

Plus, there’s nothing to it. The pictures above show almost the entire process on my Android phone: download, open, tap through a few dialogs, that’s it. At no point did I have to enter any data, and the Settings app confirms that COVIDWISE has requested zero permissions for my data. It uses the Bluetooth radio and the network connection; that’s it, as I’ve confirmed on two other Android phones.

If I’m curious about how this app’s working, I can pop into Android’s Settings app (search “COVID” or “exposure”) to see when my phone last performed an exposure check. But I don’t expect to get any other sign of this app’s presence on my phone–unless it warns me that I stood too close to somebody who tested positive, in which case I may not enjoy that notification but will certainly need it.

Updated 8/6/2020 with further details about the app’s setup and operation.