The claim: Google automatically signed up all Android users for a COVID-19 tracing app
New mobile contact tracing technology aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19 has prompted claims on social media that Google automatically updated all Android devices with a tracing app.
A June 3 Facebook posting reads, “Android users BEWARE, google automatically signed you up to COVID-19 tracing app.”
The post then goes on to urge Android users to turn off COVID-19 exposure notifications under Usage & Diagnostics in their Google Services located in the device’s settings.
The claim follows reports that public health officials and technology companies are working on contact tracing methods to identify people who have been near someone infected with the coronavirus. Similar claims appeared on social media platforms in May — and have been debunked — after Congress introduced a bill focused on contact tracing and increased testing.
The user who shared the post did not respond to USA TODAY for comment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously stated that contact tracing is a key strategy for COVID-19 prevention because it aims to identify and notify those who may have been exposed.
Exposure notifications explained
On May 20, Apple and Google announced that COVID-19 exposure notifications, a mobile tool that allows for digital contact tracing, were available for use on iOS and Android devices.
The new technology can track users who are in the proximity of someone for at least five minutes who has tested positive for the virus and anonymously notify users through Bluetooth technology. Participation is completely voluntary.
“Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to exposure notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app,” a news release from Google and Apple states. The companies noted that “strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”
Here’s how it works: With your consent, if you test positive for the coronavirus, anyone who was near you within the past 14 days will get a notification on their smartphone that they have been potentially exposed. The notification will read: “You have recently come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Tap for more information.”
The effectiveness of the technology largely depends on who is carrying their phones with them and keeping their phones active, on how many people – once they learn they have tested positive for the virus – decide to use the technology to let others know they may have been exposed, and how many people – once they receive an alert about possible exposure – follow public health protocols about testing, self-isolation and additional contact tracing.
The technology would assist public health officials and authorities in lifting social distancing measures or responding to new outbreaks that appear.
Privacy concerns addressed
Apple told USA TODAY that use is strictly voluntary, user location is not collected and that the technology is used only for exposure notifications. The technology can simply be turned off or uninstalled after it is no longer needed.
In a frequently asked questions about the exposure notifications, Google has assured that each user will have to explicitly choose to turn on the technology and that it can be turned off at any time. The system rotates privacy beacons every 10-20 minutes to prevent tracking, and the system is only used for contact tracing by public health authorities’ apps, which must meet certain criteria related to privacy, security and data control.
“The choice to use this technology rests with the user, and he or she can turn it off at any time by uninstalling the contact tracing application or turning off exposure notification in Settings,” the companies stated in their guide.
Google and Apple themselves do not have access to information related to any specific individual through the technology and access is only granted to health authorities who meet the criteria.
“In keeping with our privacy guidelines, Apple and Google will not receive identifying information about the user, location data, or information about any other devices the user has been in proximity of,” Apple and Google said.
Our rating: Partly false
The claim that all Android smartphone users have been automatically signed up for a COVID-19 app is rated PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. Apple and Google did recently add exposure notifications to devices under Settings, but the contact tracing technology only works if one has opted in and enabled the notifications. Apple and Google have both stated that privacy is an essential part of the contact tracing technology and there is no evidence to support the claim that Android users are automatically being signed up for the exposure notifications. Participation is completely voluntary.
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