S.C. coronavirus exposure notification app on pause due to lawmaker privacy concerns

Updated: Nov. 30, 2020 at 6:50 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - State lawmakers are vetting a smartphone app aimed to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

The app alerts users if they’ve potentially been exposed to someone with the virus. It uses Bluetooth, wireless technology, not GPS tracking to let users know if they were near someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

The Medical University of South Carolina and the State Department of Health and Environmental Control are collaborating with Google and Apple on the app called SC Safer Together.

MUSC says users remain anonymous and they do not have to share personal data. The app relies on users to upload COVID-19 testing information for the notification system to work.

MUSC officials say information does not leave the person’s phone unless they want it to. They say safety and privacy is of paramount concern to MUSC and “all data is encrypted, secure and in control of the user.”

MUSC officials say their team began developing the app over the summer.

Charleston area resident Sami El Maasarani is in support of the app being used statewide.

“At this point we all have to grow up and not worry about our privacy, but worry about our health and loved ones and people getting COVID and dying everyday,” El Maasarani said.

The Director of MUSC Public Affairs, Media Relations and Presidential Communications Heather Woolwine says their leadership has worked to keep the legislature updated on their progress. MUSC says it has consulted them on next steps to ensure that they comply with the law. They’re giving lawmakers a comprehensive perspective of what the app does and does not do.

“Protecting individual privacy is an important endeavor, and we respect state lawmakers’ role in assessing new technologies that relate to personal data access,” Woolwine said.

MUSC says they are pilot testing the app as part of a research project and they plan to review that data with state leaders in the early part of 2021.

Officials with the South Carolina Department of Health of Environmental Control says they “issued a letter of support to MUSC on the development of a mobile app to be used for exposure notification, not contact tracing, for use by Clemson University staff and students as part of a formal research study.”

The pilot program to test the app is underway at Clemson University. DHEC says participation of the app is completely voluntary and that they did not develop or manage the app.

The app will have to receive approval from state legislatures before it can be used statewide.

State Representative and software developer Jonathon Hill has privacy concerns and says there are ways the data could be abused. He believes contact tracing should be a containment strategy and not an enforcement strategy and has concerns about enforcement if the app were implemented statewide.

“Many of the citizens in the state of South Carolina would agree with me when I say that I do not trust Apple, I do not trust Google and I trust the state of South Carolina even less,” Hill said. “Look how just within the last decade, I believe the Department of Revenue was hacked due to poor security at that agency.”

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