Four reasons why covid exposure apps haven’t taken off in the United States yet

with Tonya Riley

Coronavirus cases are climbing throughout the country. But the vast majority of Americans have yet to install contact-tracing apps, which can alert them if they’ve been near someone who has tested positive for the virus. 

graphical user interface, text, application, chat or text message: Covidwise is a free download, as seen here, on the Google Play app store. it's also available on Apple's iPhone app store. (Photo by Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

© Jonathan Baran/TWP
Covidwise is a free download, as seen here, on the Google Play app store. it’s also available on Apple’s iPhone app store. (Photo by Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

About 100 million people now have access to what’s known as “exposure notification” technology, which can send a pop-up notification after people spent time near a person who later tested positive for the coronavirus, my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler reports. The alerts – which are built using software created by Apple and Google – were widely seen as one of Silicon Valley’s most critical roles in the coronavirus response. 

But these apps are most effective when more people join them — and to date, the United States has had a scattered rollout of the technology. But there is early research abroad indicating that the technology can play a role in limiting the spread of the virus. 

Here are four reasons that coronavirus exposure apps haven’t taken off yet here:

1. There’s a patchwork of different systems in the United States.

The federal government hasn’t rolled out a single exposure notification system for the whole country, so Americans instead have to rely on a patchwork of different state and local apps. As of Nov. 20, 15 U.S. states and territories, plus D.C., supported coronavirus exposure alerts. Geoffrey made a helpful guide allowing you to check if it’s available in your state, and turn on the notifications.

Several large states have also announced their intent to launch exposure notification technology or are testing limited services, such as California. 

Yet this patchwork of different systems is one of the reasons that it’s been so difficult to spur widespread adoption. The different apps have different installation instructions depending on where you live, and because they’re not available to all Americans, they’re often lost in the conversation about how the United States is responding to the coronavirus. 

“Asking each state to separately develop its technology has been a hindrance at a time when health departments are strapped for time, money, tech and marketing expertise,” Geoffrey recently wrote. 

States have started working on ensuring these apps work across state borders – which could be key as more Americans are expected to travel during the holidays. But there also are limitations if one state has a system in place, and a neighboring state does not. 

2. Increased politicization of the virus has put off people from downloading the app.

The coronavirus has emerged as a hot-button political issue, and covid exposure apps are not immune. Jeff Stover, an executive adviser to Virginia’s health commissioner, recently told the Wall Street Journal that politicization is making it difficult to convince people to download Covidwise, the state’s contact tracing-app. 

 “That doesn’t help convince Virginians to download and run an exposure notification app that is run by the government,” Stover told the Journal’s Rolfe Winkler. 

Virginia was the first state to roll out a contact tracing app. But three months later, only about a tenth of Virginia’s 8.5 million citizens had downloaded the app. 

Rolfe found that local Virginia Facebook groups show how opinions on Covidwise are split along partisan lines. A recent post about the app in a group in Arlington County, which mostly supported Joe Biden, largely elicited positive comments that the app could help stop the virus’s spread. Yet in another group for residents of Montpelier in Hanover County, where people mostly voted for President Trump, a post about Covidwise drew negative comments, raising concerns about the privacy implications of the app. 

3. People have major privacy concerns about the technology.

Other early examples of contact-tracing technology resulted in major privacy concerns. But the technology rolled out by Apple and Google uses Bluetooth signals and is widely seen as secure. Yet some people just don’t want to install yet another app. 

Kellen MacBeth, who works from home in Arlington, Va., told the Journal he’s not sure it would be worth it for him to download such technology because he has limited his contact to just a few friends. He tries to steer clear of downloading too many apps because of privacy concerns. 

Apple and Google have both said their approach prioritizes people’s privacy, as it isn’t collecting sensitive data such as location (it works by telling you if you’ve been near someone else who’s tested positive, but doesn’t say where that might have been). My colleague Geoffrey, who has brought a critical eye  to privacy issues in the tech industry, says that he hasn’t found much danger in having exposure notification systems on his phone. 

“Here’s why: These systems don’t log your phone’s location,” Geoffrey writes. “Instead, they use the clever Bluetooth system that helps phones remember whom you were near without knowing where you were.”

4. Many people just don’t know the technology is available.

Apple and Google have largely buried the settings for these apps, Geoffrey notes. And because of the patchwork state response, people might not be aware of them if they aren’t closely following health guidance from their local officials. 

Right now there’s a major marketing challenge for the apps – and local governments don’t necessarily have the resources to help raise greater awareness of them. Geoffrey sees a role there for tech companies that are master marketers. 

“Apple and Google have been helping states market it behind the scenes but haven’t included it in their own fancy product launches and TV commercials (including the ones dubiously promoting new smartwatches as ‘the future of health’),” he wrote. “If they’re serious about this tech saving lives, they really ought to step up.”

Our top tabs

Many of Parler’s biggest proponents can’t seem to quit their old social networks.

a person sitting in front of a laptop computer: The social media website from Parler displayed on a computer screen.

© Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
The social media website from Parler displayed on a computer screen.

Many of the conservative commentators and politicians who have flocked to the site remain just as active on Twitter and Facebook, my colleagues Rachel Lerman and Drew Harwell report. For many pundits, the website serves as yet another soapbox for the messages they’re already sharing on mainstream social networks, which they’re strongly criticizing for moderating posts about election misinformation. 

Maria Bartiromo, the Fox News anchor, has been one of the top pro-Trump commentators urging followers to join Parler. She said she would “no longer accept the censorship that is happening on Twitter” in a recent interview. Yet between Election Day and Sunday afternoon, Bartiromo posted to Parler 118 times — and tweeted 174 times.

Dan Bongino, a Parler investor and right-wing commentator, called on his followers to join Parler to “Stop the Digital Inquisition!” That day he posted on Parler 51 times – and Twitter 90 times. 

A few loyalists have fully taken the Parler plunge. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) hasn’t posted on Twitter in a week. Instead he’s been sending more than 1,500 “parleys” to his 2 million Parler followers. 

Researchers say the current political division has created an environment ripe for an Internet full of personalized echo chambers. 

“There was this purposeful movement into mainstream social media spaces, and now there’s this movement away … where people are putting themselves back into these private spaces, making them more circular in their logic and strengthening that internal division,” Robyn Caplan, who researches social media platforms at the technology think tank Data & Society, told my colleagues. As a result, “we don’t really know what our fellow Americans are saying.”

Twitter and Facebook are planning to transfer presidential accounts to President-elect Joe Biden.

Twitter, Facebook make plan for Biden transfer of power



The presidential handle @POTUS will automatically be shifted to Joe Biden when he’s sworn in on Inauguration Day — even if Trump doesn’t concede, Politico’s Nancy Scola reports. 

The @whitehouse, @VP, @FLOTUS and other official accounts associated with the presidency also will be transferred.

“Twitter is actively preparing to support the transition of White House institutional Twitter accounts on January 20th, 2021,” Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio said in an email. “As we did for the presidential transition in 2017, this process is being done in close consultation with the National Archives and Records Administration.”

Facebook said it would also transfer the official president account on its platform, according to Reuters. 

“In 2017, we worked with both the Obama Administration and incoming Trump Administration to make sure the transition of their Facebook and Instagram accounts was seamless on January 20th, and we expect to do the same here,” Facebook said in response to a query from Reuters.

Trump, however, will maintain a powerful megaphone on the social networks. He largely posts from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter and @DonaldTrump Facebook page, which are personal accounts that will remain under his control. 

Apple is lobbying against a bill that aims to crack down on forced labor in China.

a group of people walking down a street: An Apple store in a shopping district in Beijing on Nov. 13. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

© Thomas Peter/Reuters
An Apple store in a shopping district in Beijing on Nov. 13. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Apple has been quietly lobbying against a bill that would bring steep fines if the company is caught using enslaved labor, two Senate staffers told Reed Albergotti. 

Apple is one of the many U.S. companies that are looking to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would require U.S. companies to guarantee they do not use enslaved people from the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has placed more than a million people into concentration camps in the region. 

The lobbying push highlights the clash between Apple’s heavy reliance on Chinese manufacturing and its public human rights stance.

“What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, which has supported the bill. “They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability.”

Chief executive Tim Cook came out against enslaved person labor, but the company has been accused of several alleged labor abuses over the years.

 Apple’s lobbying firm publicly disclosed it was lobbying for the company on behalf of the bill but did not disclose Apple’s position. Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock said the company “is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with dignity and respect. We abhor forced labor and support the goals of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. We share the committee’s goal of eradicating forced labor and strengthening U.S. law, and we will continue working with them to achieve that.” 

Privacy monitor

Biden’s top tech adviser helped craft California’s privacy law.

Rob Nabors, Barack Obama, Bruce Reed sitting at a table with wine glasses: Then-President Barack Obama eats a hamburger and fries with Director of Legislative Affairs Rob Nabors and Chief of Staff of the Vice President, Bruce Reed (R). Reed is now tech adviser to President-elect Joe Biden. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

© Jason Reed/Reuters
Then-President Barack Obama eats a hamburger and fries with Director of Legislative Affairs Rob Nabors and Chief of Staff of the Vice President, Bruce Reed (R). Reed is now tech adviser to President-elect Joe Biden. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

He also recently condemned Section 230, a controversial law that protects Internet companies from lawsuits, according to Joseph Menn of Reuters. These stances could signal how the Biden administration may come down on two issues critical to the future of tech regulation. 

Bruce Reed, who previously served as Biden’s chief of staff and is expected to have a key role in the next administration, helped negotiate on behalf of backers of a ballot initiative that led to the creation of the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act, which some see as a model for federal privacy legislation. He also co-authored a chapter in a book last month denouncing Section 230, as both Republicans and Democrats have called for changes to it.


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