UCSF Launches Pilot of Privacy-Preserving Smartphone Tool to Help Slow Spread of COVID-19

By Jason Alvarez

woman wearing a mask and looking at a cellphone

UC San Francisco is piloting the use of California COVID Notify, a smartphone-based tool that allows users to opt-in to receive an alert if they’ve had a high-risk exposure to COVID-19.

Starting Sept. 30, students, faculty and staff at UCSF will be invited to activate COVID Notify on their smartphones. Those who opt in will be among the first Californians to test the tool as part of a limited pilot that will help policymakers decide whether to make COVID Notify available statewide.

“We’re hoping to find out if exposure notification tools like COVID Notify can supplement the essential work being done every day by human contact tracers,” said Robert Kosnik, MD, director of the UCSF Occupational Health Program, which is overseeing the rollout of the tool at UCSF. “If the pilot succeeds, it may lead to widespread adoption of COVID Notify, providing Californians with a convenient tool that may help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

How COVID Notify Works

COVID Notify is powered by technology developed by Google and Apple. Though it’s one of many COVID-19 exposure notification systems to emerge since the pandemic began, the technology behind COVID Notify was designed with user privacy in mind. Users are strictly anonymous and COVID Notify never uses GPS and never collects, stores or transmits location data or personal information from a user’s device.

“Privacy was our main consideration when deciding whether UCSF should participate in the COVID Notify pilot,” said Heidi Collins, ‎vice president of Clinical Systems at ‎UCSF Health. “After assessing the technology and consulting with epidemiologists and health informatics experts, we feel confident that UCSF employees and students who opt in will have their privacy safeguarded.”

When participants enable COVID Notify on their iPhones or Android smartphones, their devices will use Bluetooth to broadcast a random string of characters known as an “anonymous key.” When two smartphones running COVID Notify come within a few feet of each other, each phone will log the anonymous key that the other phone is broadcasting. No location data or personally identifiable information is ever exchanged.

View the Exposure Notification video in Spanish

If a user later tests positive for COVID-19 and chooses to upload and share their positive test result, COVID Notify will run an algorithm to determine whether other users who may have been exposed – i.e., users whose phones logged the COVID-positive person’s anonymous key – are at sufficiently high-risk to warrant an alert. If the incident meets the risk threshold, users will receive a message alerting them to the possible COVID-19 exposure and will be provided with links to UCSF resources that will help them take the appropriate next steps, which may include testing, medical care and self-isolation.

Supplementing Memory for Contact Tracing

Though public health experts believe that human contact tracers remain an indispensable resource in the fight against COVID-19, exposure notification tools like COVID Notify may prove especially useful in cases where memory fails.

“You may not remember or be aware of all the people you cross paths with,” said Bruce Mace, ‎executive director of Facilities & Support Services at ‎UCSF Health. “With COVID Notify, this may not be as critical. This technology may help warn others of a potential COVID exposure, even when a COVID-positive person isn’t able to provide contact tracers with a complete list of everyone they encountered in the weeks leading up to their diagnosis.”

The UCSF leg of the pilot is expected to last four to six weeks and is open to all students, faculty and staff whose primary affiliation is with UCSF, UCSF Health, or UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals. The pilot is not currently open to the general public or those whose primary affiliation is with Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, San Francisco VA Health Care System or UCSF Fresno.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.