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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Alaska’s new smartphone feature allows you to report COVID exposure anonymously

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Kenrick Mock, Professor of Computer Science at Anchorage at the University of Alaska, shows how to use the Alaska COVID ENX feature. (Wesley Early / Alaska Public Media)

With the rapidly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus in Alaska, contact tracking is becoming increasingly difficult. A new feature for Alaska smartphones could help.

The COVID ENX service was developed by Apple and Google to allow users to report anonymously that they tested positive for COVID-19.

Kenrick Mock is a professor of computer science at the University of Alaska Anchorage who is part of the team that optimized the feature for Alaska phones.

“If you have an Apple iPhone and it’s a little new, then it’s already integrated into the operating system,” Mock said. “All a person has to do is go to their settings and there’s a setting for exposure notifications, and all they have to do is turn it on.”

From here, the feature uses Bluetooth to connect with other nearby phones that have the feature turned on. A random code is generated and sent automatically and anonymously to nearby phones, where it is stored for 14 days.

“If someone tests COVID positive, all they can do is share their positive test,” Mock said. “And when they do, it’s anonymous. It doesn’t link to them or say it was their phone or anything like that. And then, from the exchange of these random codes, other phones that have had contact with the person who shared their diagnosis will be notified that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 “.

Mock said users are turning to state resources to test and isolate them. Although he said the app removes some of the stress from contacting healthcare workers, it does not send the positive result to the state database.

Mock said he would not ping all nearby phones, only those that meet a typical COVID exposure threshold, at six feet for more than 15 minutes. He said a good example is a movie theater.

“You’re sitting in a theater for maybe two hours and you don’t know who these people are who might be near you,” Mock said. “One of them could be positive and if you share your diagnosis, you could receive a notification and know that you should be tested.”

For Apple users, Mock said they need to have at least the iOS 14.4 software update for the feature to work on their phone. For Android users, an app for Alaska COVID ENX will be released next week in the Play Store.

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