No, Apple and Google Didn’t Secretly Install Contact-Tracing Apps on Your Phone

No, Apple and Google Didn’t Secretly Install Contact-Tracing Apps on Your Phone

Recent social media posts (which I won’t link to, but you can find them easily with a Twitter search) claim Apple and Google are installing contact tracing apps on your phone without your permission. The posts show even convincing screenshots and allude to statements made by both companies indicating they have been developing technologies to help aid in contact tracing efforts; this evidence is served up as proof the mega-corps are hiding apps on your phones and tracking everywhere you go.

Now, look, it’s true some early contact tracing apps carried out shady data-collection schemes, and there have been concerns over “contact-tracing arrests” during recent protests. But the rumours about back-door tracing features being installed surreptitiously on your devices just aren’t true.

Let me say that plainly: There are currently no hidden contact-tracing apps on your iPhone or Android devices.

While some devices have been updated with dedicated settings related to COVID-19 exposure tracking, all that’s been added is the ability for contact tracing apps you install to interface with your device at the system-level so they can send alerts and exposure notifications.

Forbes’ cybersecurity journalist Dave Winder tested this out himself, and I have similar COVID-19-themed settings on my Pixel 3a XL. Said settings are not only turned off by default, but Google’s updates introducing them didn’t install any unwanted apps on my device for location-tracking (nor is anything installed even if I turn the setting on; it only affects apps looking for those permissions).

Screenshot: Brendan Hesse
Screenshot: Brendan Hesse

At this point, the only way for a contact-tracing app to show up on your phone is for you to manually download and install it and grant it permission to track your data. You’ll probably never have to install one if you don’t want to, anyway, since manual contact tracing works just fine.

But even if there was a new contact-tracing feature on your device, it would use the GPS and app activity information that your phone and apps already keep tabs on. There are even ways to turn off such tracking features and delete the data that companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter collect from you as a matter of course.

I’m not necessarily saying you need to turn off all these features right away; I’m just pointing out that we have a degree of control over what data gets tracked, where it goes and who can access it ” not to mention which apps or devices we choose to use in the first place. As long as those options remain available, you don’t need to worry about whether your phone is spying on you during the worst global pandemic of the last century. I don’t blame people for being worried about the threat of omnipresent digital surveillance, but don’t let those concerns tip over into believing false rumours.

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