Google and Apple’s Covid-19 notification technology no ‘secret’

A “Covid-19 sensor” has been “secretly” inserted into every phone, claims a message circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp in several countries recently.

“Apparently when everyone was having ‘phone disruption’ earlier this week, they were adding Covid-19 tracker to our phones,” it reads.

“If you have an android phone, go to ‘settings’ then look for ‘google settings’ and it’s there. If you’re using an iPhone, go to ‘settings’ then ‘privacy’ then ‘health’ and it’s there but not yet functional. The app can notify you if you’ve been near someone who has reported having covid-19. Check and confirm.”

Publicly launched Covid-19 exposure notification system

But the “secretly inserted sensor” is actually an exposure notification system jointly created by Google and Apple. It’s smartphone technology meant to automatically notify people if they have possibly been exposed to Covid-19.

The companies have explained that the technology aims to help governments and the global community fight the Covid-19 pandemic with digital contact tracing.

Not ‘secretly inserted’

The system wasn’t “secretly” launched. It was reported on major news outlets across the world in May 2020.

In Kenya, there was no significant “phone disruption” at the time. The technology can be found under “Google settings” for phones running Apple’s iOS 13.5 or the Android 6.0 operating system and above. 

Google and Apple have given the choice for “Covid-19 exposure notifications” in smartphones. But the system was not “secretly installed” and doesn’t automatically “track” people. It first needs the phone owner’s consent, and won’t work unless a country’s health department has developed the necessary tracing app.

The system is turned off by default. It’s up to the owner to turn it on or off. 

When it is turned on, the tracing app – if there is one – then has to be downloaded. Again, this is up to the phone’s owner.

Google and Apple have made it clear that the necessary tracing apps will only be developed by countries’ public health authorities, not by them.

We tried to download it in Kenya from the Google Play store and got a message that no tracing apps endorsed by local or national authorities were available.

How it works

When someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 wants to protect people they may come across, they can notify the app of their positive status.

Then, if someone else comes near the infected person, the app will notify and advise them accordingly.

Both of these people would need to have the Covid-19 exposure notification system turned on, along with their phones’ Bluetooth and location settings.

The tech companies have also clarified that the location and identity of phone users are not shared. The system does not use GPS or location data but random Bluetooth identifiers that indicate proximity, thus protecting users’ identities.

Google and Apple have also said that any tracing app developed by public authorities would not be allowed to use a person’s phone’s location or even track their location in the background. – Dancan Bwire

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