Apps Can Help Trace COVID-19, But Can You Trust Them?

Expert says available apps track infection data from Asia, so they're of little use here

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If you search “contact tracing” in the app store on your phone, you’ll find at least three apps that claim they can stop the spread of COVID-19, and help protect you from the potentially devastating disease.

But one expert warns those apps are of little value in the local effort to contain COVID-19. 

“The apps you’re seeing through the app store, generally don’t even apply to the U.S.,” said James Lee of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.

Lee told NBC 7 Investigates that COVID-19 tracing apps that are now on the market use contact tracing data only from Asia. “So if you’re downloading those apps, they’re not particularly helpful, if you’re in the United States,” Lee said.

Lee also cautioned that if an app connected to local testing data does hit the market in the future, it will still contain limited data and be of little value, at least for the near-term.

“Frankly, there’s not the infrastructure (currently) to get that information into peoples’ hands,” said Lee.

That could change, Lee said, if testing ramps up and smartphone apps access that data from state and local sources. States and tech giants Apple and Google are racing to develop an app for nationwide use. 

But Lee said you should ask yourself some important questions before hitting the “download” prompt.

“If those apps do come into play, is that information anonymous, and is it secure?” Lee said. Another concern that Lee has is if the apps could collect your contact information and gain access to your personal health information. That would be a significant breach, if that data ends up in the wrong hands.

“In that sense, it’s good to have your paranoia meter up a little higher than usual,” Lee counseled.

He also suggests using apps developed by academic institutions or reputable, well-known organizations. 

“Don’t download an app just because it’s in the app store,” Lee said.

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