Apple And Google's COVID-19 Contact Tracing Phone Platform: Separating Truth From Pure FUD
Dealing with the Coronavirus is challenging enough, from the rising death toll and negative economic impact, to the stay-at-home orders and everything involved with social distancing. One thing we do not have to worry about, however, is the supposed silent installation of a COVID-19 "track and trace" app on Android and iPhone devices.
Claims to the contrary have surfaced on social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, with seemingly convincing screenshots. A similar message has also been spreading through forwarded messages on WhatsApp, leading to concern that Apple and Google are taking matters into their own hands and sneakily installing software.
However, the claims are simply not true. FullFact.org, the UK's independent fact checking charity, did some digging into what is really going on. As it turns out, there is a framework in place, but not an actual app.
"The claim that the [NHS COVID-19 track and trace] app has been automatically downloaded is incorrect. What has been added to both Android and Apple phones is the Exposure Notification API. This is not an app itself—it’s an underlying technology developed by Apple and Google that allows Coronavirus tracking apps made by public health bodies to work across devices," the organization explains.
Unless you have specifically installed an application that utilizes the API, it does not do anything.
Adding to the confusion, both Apple and Google have added a COVID-19 notification option to iOS and Android, respectively. However, the functions are disabled by default. If you own an iOS device with iOS 13.5 or later, you can navigate to Settings > Privacy > Health to find the COVID-19 Exposure Logging, and enable it if you wish.
"When enabled, iPhone can exchange random IDs with other devices using Bluetooth. This enables an app to notify you if you may have been exposed to COVID-19. Exposure Logging cannot access any data in, or add any data to, the Health app," Apple explains.
Likewise, you can find the option on Android devices by navigating to Settings > Google > COVID-19 Exposure Notifications.
Sometime in the future, Apple and Google might integrate COVID-19 contact tracing functionalities into their respective platforms that would optionally work without the need for a dedicated app, but as of right now, that is not the case.