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.

Reload for hope: my vaccination-data diet

Too many mornings over the last 11 months have started with me checking the Johns Hopkins University’s dashboard that began measuring the onslaught of the novel-coronavirus pandemic just over a year ago.

That page’s dismal totals remain stuck in my morning reading, but the past month has brought some relief: daily data about the advance of the vaccines that can strangle this virus.

Screenshot of the Virginia Department of Health's vaccine tracker, showing statewide totals, a map of distribution and a daily-doses chart

The first one to land on my reading list was the vaccine-tracker page that Bloomberg set up in December. The news it’s delivered about vaccinations across the U.S. and around the world has gotten better every week–especially here in Virginia, no longer a laggard among the states. So has the design, as Bloomberg’s data-visualization wonks keep finding new ways to layer in more detail. They update this page (fortunately outside Bloomberg’s paywall) once or twice a day, most often starting at around 6 p.m., and I am now stuck in the habit of reloading it in idle moments.

About a week later, the Virginia Department of Health added a vaccination summary to its existing COVID-19 dashboard. That, too, has grown more info-dense, adding a doses-per-day chart that has steadily ascended over the last few weeks and, more recently, demographic data about distribution by age, race and gender. It also provides a map breaking down vaccination by cities and counties, plus a tab listing vaccine dose distributions across the commonwealth.

VDH has testing numbers posted by 10 a.m.–they have finally started nose-diving in the last couple of weeks–and now posts vaccination data no later than noon. This provides a nice bit of punctuation for the middle of the day.

The last week has put a third site on my reading list, the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccinations data tracker. The numbers here don’t tell me much that I won’t get at the other two sites. But since Jan. 20, seeing this page get updates every day, not just every few days and not on weekends, speaks to a welcome return of professionalism.

The time I spend reloading these pages and others–the Washington Post and the New York Times have also done good work here–won’t advance my own date with a needle. (I’m more focused on the timetable for my mom and my in-laws to get fully vaccinated, which fortunately now seems a matter of weeks instead of months.) But when every day can look like the one before, seeing these numbers climb proves otherwise. Each data point of progress cracks open the door out of this darkness a little wider.

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.