Two of the largest technology companies in the world are working with local governments to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Google and Apple are working to fuel application development that would notify people if they have been in proximity to others who have tested positive for the virus. Unfortunately, their good work is being misconstrued by some and is causing a stir. Today, we will look at their efforts, what critics are saying, and what you can do depending on which side of the debate you are on.
This is not the first time that tech companies have got involved with the day-to-day workings of life. It actually happens a lot. These companies create a solution to a problem, there are rounds and rounds of misinformation shared about the solution, and then social media blows up with commentary and memes that are out of touch, yet effective at spreading fear about the software. This concern isn’t without some type of merit, of course, as these companies are publicly-traded behemoths, carry a lot of power, and are routinely questioned (sometimes before Congress) about their practices.
In this case, there has been an extreme response to misinformation; and, even though you can’t very well trust these huge tech companies to look after your health, in this situation, rolling out a framework that can help improve transparency around matters of public health shouldn’t come with much alarm.
No. In fact, they didn’t install an app at all. They’ve developed an application framework that makes it simpler for developers to come up with useful apps designed to improve public health initiatives. In this case it helps developers make apps to trace and report the spread of COVID-19.
Unfortunately we’ve been seeing memes and other posts that look like this on social media:
“**VERY IMPORTANT ALERT!***
A COVID-19 sensor has been secretly installed into every phone. Apparently, when everyone was having “phone disruption” over the weekend, they were adding COVID-19 Tracker [SIC] to our phones!
If you have an Android phone, go under settings, then look for google settings and you will find it installed there.
If you are using an iPhone, go under settings, privacy, then health. It is there but not yet functional.
The App can notify you if you’ve been near someone who has been reported having COVID-19.”
This information is very misleading. The update that this post is referring to was just a new setting that enables the COVID-19 Exposure Notification system. Users still need to install apps and activate notifications through that app for the Exposure Notification system to have any effect. All the update does is to effectively provide an integration that developers can use to make health-related applications.
Most people would agree that having a COVID-19 tracker would be useful. That’s why Google and Apple agreed to change their OS to support these applications. They came out in support of the decision with a joint statement: “What we’ve built is not an app—rather public agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install.”
An API is an Application Programming Interface, the foundation of an application..
Before we get into the particulars, you should know that anyone creating COVID-19 trackers will have the full support of local and state governments. Apple and Google felt the responsibility to do something because they want products that work for society. Since these two companies’ operating systems fuel nearly every smartphone on the planet, they teamed up to create the framework and updated their systems with it.
Since this framework is decentralized, it will aid in security. Once a user ops in, their phone is assigned a randomized ID. This ID is exchanged with other phones within Bluetooth range, creating a list of users that you’ve come into contact with. If someone that has been in your proximity is diagnosed with COVID-19, that information will be relayed to you via a tracing app that you choose to download.
Since the update isn’t an application, it can’t be installed. It is effectively part of the operating system. Uninstalling an API is impossible, so people that give you the way to do so are just asking you to roll back your OS to a previous version that doesn’t have the API included. This is a complicated process and can (and probably will) brick your phone. Moreover, both Google and Apple have confirmed that by not installing a COVID-19 app that uses the exposure notification system is enough to never use it. You opt out by not downloading an app, it’s that simple.
To be clear:
WE DO NOT RECOMMEND FOLLOWING ANY INSTRUCTIONS ONLINE THAT WALK YOU THROUGH ROLLING BACK YOUR PHONE AND OPTING OUT OF SECURITY UPDATES.
Ironically, by rolling back the updates on your mobile device because you are afraid Google and Apple are tracking you with this update, you are actually putting your privacy further at risk. Obviously, it is your choice to do whatever you want, but if you want a working phone that is up-to-date and working to keep your data safe, you should just keep using your phone the way you always do and forget that this API was even coded into your phone’s OS.
We want you to have good experiences with your technology. Call us today to ask one of our technology professionals about this issue if you have more questions at (718) 685-2959.