The state has launched a new “one-stop” mobile app, called Crush COVID RI, meant to help the state step up its fight against the virus – and while thousands of Rhode Islanders are said to have downloaded the app in the first 24 hours after its release, others have raised concerns over privacy.
The Crush COVID RI app, which is available for download through the Apple App Store and on Google Play, was unveiled during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Tuesday briefing after weeks of development.
During her Wednesday briefing, the governor said approximately 10,000 Rhode Islanders had downloaded Crush COVID RI since her announcement.
“It’s going to be a tool that really helps Rhode Island … We are the first state, or one of the first few states in the country, to roll out a one-stop app of this kind,” Raimondo said.
The app, which is available in English and Spanish, was developed by the Rhode Island Department of Health in consultation with the company Infosys.
Raimondo said it is meant to meet a range of needs, including directing people to resources for food delivery or alternative housing arrangements during self-quarantine.
The most central aspects of the app, however, are focused on data collection and contact tracing.
The app allows users to take a brief, daily survey regarding any symptoms they might be experiencing, which the governor said will help health officials “know about outbreaks before they happen.” The data from that survey will be aggregated by ZIP code for use by state officials, the governor said.
The app allows people to locate and schedule available testing, and it also asks uses to enable location tacking for a “location diary” that can be used in the contact tracing process. That feature, she said, will identify locations a person has been for more than 10 minutes each day, and the data will be stored on the person’s phone for 20 days.
Raimondo on Tuesday said all of the app’s data collection features, including the symptom survey and the “location diary,” will be entirely voluntary. She also said the data will not be shared – “never to a company, never to another department or agency.”
“This is completely your choice. No one is ever going to make you download this app … No one is ever going to make you share the data,” she said. “I, however, am asking you to do this.”
She added, regarding the state’s hope for participation: “We want 90-plus percent, but anything is useful … Any amount is helpful.”
The governor also said the app is “not a real-time tracking tool” and will not be used for quarantine compliance monitoring.
Concerns quickly emerged, however, regarding some aspects of the app how it would collect and share data.
In a statement, ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown lauded the voluntarily nature of many of the app’s features but raised a number of questions.
“As the Governor has acknowledged and most people recognize, potentially substantial privacy issues are raised by the government’s use of any technological location tracking program. That is certainly true in this case with the state’s efforts to control spread of Covid-19,” the statement reads. ““We therefore greatly appreciate the fact that the Governor and her staff have understood that voluntary participation is a crucial aspect of any such program, and that steps have been taken in developing the app to help ensure that any sharing of a user’s private information is done only on an opt-in basis.”
It continues: “At the same time, a handful of significant questions remain about the program’s operation and its true voluntariness in practice. We consider it important for those questions to be answered in order to definitively assuage concerns about the potential ‘Big Brother’ aspects of electronic contract tracing.”
Brown’s statement points to “very constructive and important privacy-protective features” in the initial iteration of the app, including the opt-in nature of the location tracking function and local storage of the data it collects.
The statement goes on, however, to seek “clarification” on a number of fronts, including whether workers and customers are protected from a business requiring the app’s use as a condition of employment or entry; whether the data shared with the Department of Health might ultimately be shared with law enforcement; and whether users will be adequately informed of any terms of service changes when future updates are released.
“We recognize the urgency of stemming the pandemic, and are not opposed to technological tools that may offer public health benefits … However, deployed incorrectly, the app has the potential to interfere with public health efforts, undermine trust, and violate individuals’ rights,” Brown said in the statement.
He concludes: “Finally, we also support the state’s recognition that use of an app like this can only be part of the public health response to the pandemic, especially since some people will not have phones that can run the app or may have legitimate concerns about installing it, and those communities cannot be left out.”