University of California Expands COVID-19 Exposure Smartphone Notification Pilot

The University of California (UC) will expand its pilot program testing a smartphone-based COVID-19 exposure notification system. The initial pilot began this fall on two UC campuses, but will now add five more campuses to the pilot.

In a press release, UC explained that the voluntary pilot uses Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) technology on smartphones to aid human contact tracers and help further reduce the spread of COVID-19. “The Google/Apple technology employs Bluetooth to communicate with other Bluetooth-enabled devices nearby, such as the smartphones of people who at the same time are traveling on a plane, standing with in line at a grocery store or sharing space inside a classroom or dormitory,” UC explained. “When a person opts into using the Google/Apple notification system, the user’s phone broadcasts a random identification number to other phones in the area. When phones come within 6 feet of each another, they log each other’s IDs – without names or locations attached.”

UC said that a primary goal of the pilot is to determine if using this smartphone technology can encourage users to respond to a high-risk exposure more quickly by self-isolating and receiving additional clinical resources.

Through the program, which is a partnership between UC and the State of California, volunteers can use the technology to receive automatic smartphone notifications of potential exposure to other enrolled users diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of whether the users know each other.

The pilot takes what UC describes as a “privacy-first approach,” and allows users decide whether they want to share a verified positive test result with the app and determine whether they want to share that with other users. UC said that state and university epidemiologists are currently reviewing the results of the pilot to determine how to optimize the smartphone-based technology and whether it should be rolled out more broadly.

“We are pleased that the initial launch of the program was well received by students and employees at our first two participating campuses,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, CIO of UC San Diego Health. “With even more people now eligible to use the exposure notification system, we will be able to see how we can use it as a powerful tool to slow the spread of the virus.”

The pilot began with UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, and will now include UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Riverside, and UC Santa Barbara. UC noted that with the addition of additional campuses, UC was looking to expand to a more demographically diverse set of students, faculty, and staff. Additional UC locations may join the pilot in coming weeks.

UC noted that while the software does not allow tracking of users, UC estimates that more than 20,000 users at the initial two campus locations have activated the software.

“Extending the pilot project allows us to reach a larger and more diverse pool of users to further evaluate the technology’s potential to help California slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Erica Pan, Interim State Public Health Officer. “Fighting COVID-19 will continue to take all of us working together to find innovative and creative ways to keep our communities safe and healthy. Our appreciation goes out to the University of California students and employees who have opted in to test this new technology.”

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs