No, Apple and Google didn’t secretly install a COVID-19 tracker on your phone

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black Samsung Galaxy Note 5

It’s not new information that it is very easy to distribute misinformation on Facebook – and often it’s because someone tries to connect the dots on two separate pieces of information and thinks “oh my god, there must be something suspicious going on” when there isn’t.

Add this one to your list of things you shouldn’t trust on Facebook.

So, did you know that when everyone was having ‘phone disruptions’ earlier this week, they were adding COVID-19 Trackers to our phones!…

Sneaky. Yes it is off at the moment but under the circumstances who knows if they will not turn it on automatically or make it so that you have to or you (sic) phone won’t work properly! Call me suspicious.

Long story short: they haven’t secretly added a COVID-19 tracker; and no, you don’t have to be suspicious.

What “Joe Brown” is referring to is the Exposure Notifications feature that was jointly developed by Apple and Google – and was announced back in April.

Google and Apple’s way works similar to BlueTrace, the open-source contact tracing system built by the Singapore Government that is also used by the Australian Government’s COVIDSafe app. It uses Bluetooth to determine who you have been in contact with. If someone does test positive for COVID-19, then anyone that was in contact with said person will get notified through their phone.

The only main difference is that, unlike COVIDSafe and BlueTrace, it doesn’t face the same problems on iOS devices – notably that you cannot run the app in the background because of Bluetooth restrictions. The new Exposure Notifications feature resolves that issue.

You can only activate it only if you have an app that supports the Exposure Notifications feature; and whilst the API is available for everyone to have a look, only public health authorities are officially allowed to use it. And even then, both Apple and Google have said they need to meet privacy, security and data use requirements before being allowed to use it.

You also have full control of your data – hence the reason why it is located in Settings. You can turn on and off the feature at any time. You can also erase the data collected.

The reason it may have come as a surprise could possibly be because of how it was installed. Apple released this as part of the iOS 13.5 update, whilst Google did it as part of an update to the Google app via the Play Store.

Regardless of how it is installed, the feature is not active unless you install an app that can make use of said feature (at the time of writing, the COVIDSafe app doesn’t support this feature). And even then, it is worth reiterating that you can turn it on and off at any time.

It’s also highly unlikely they will make it mandatory. Whilst Google’s commitment to privacy is questionable, Apple has always tried to build things with privacy in mind – heck it’s even a selling point on why you should get an iPhone instead of an Android smartphone. Making it mandatory or suddenly making it active would do some harm to their business.

And never underestimate the power of an angry developer calling out a company’s bullshit.

H/T: Josh Taylor