COVID-19 Apps Meant To Be Privacy Focused Ask For Device Location Access On Android…. WTF?

When Google and Apple released their COVID-19 exposure notification API, it was promised to put privacy first. But that may not be true. At least on the Android of the fence as The New York Times describes:

When Google and Apple announced plans in April for free software to help alert people of their possible exposure to the coronavirus, the companies promoted it as “privacy preserving” and said it would not track users’ locations. Encouraged by those guarantees, GermanySwitzerland and other countries used the code to develop national virus alert apps that have been downloaded more than 20 million times. But for the apps to work on smartphones with Google’s Android operating system — the most popular in the world — users must first turn on the device location setting, which enables GPS and may allow Google to determine their locations. 

And what is interesting is that Apple iPhones don’t require this setting. So this is just a Google thing. That sounds sketchy to say the least. And to the surprise of nobody, this has caused some alarm:

Some government officials seemed surprised that the company could detect Android users’ locations. After learning about it, Cecilie Lumbye Thorup, a spokeswoman for Denmark’s Health Ministry, said her agency intended to “start a dialogue with Google about how they in general use location data.” Switzerland said it had pushed Google for weeks to alter the location setting requirement. “Users should be able to use such proximity tracing apps without any bindings with other services,” said Dr. Sang-Il Kim, the department head for digital transformation at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health, who oversees the country’s virus-alert app. Latvia said it had pressed Google on the issue as it was developing its virus app. “We don’t like that the GPS must be on,” said Elina Dimina, head of the infectious-disease surveillance unit at Latvia’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Google’s location requirement adds to the slew of privacy and security concerns with virus-tracing apps, many of which were developed by governments before the new Apple-Google software became available. Now the Android location issue could undermine the privacy promises that governments made to the public.

Google for its part had this to say:

Pete Voss, a Google spokesman, said the virus alert apps that use the company’s software do not use device location. That’s including for people who test positive for the virus and use the apps to notify other users. The apps use Bluetooth scanning signals to detect smartphones that come into close contact with one another — without needing to know the devices’ locations at all.

Well, that’s a lame answer as if it doesn’t use location services, why does it ask for it?

For these apps to work, as many people as possible have to download them and use them. And by as many people as possible, I mean something in the range of 70% or more. This news does not help that adoption rate as this will scare users into not downloading the app. This is one situation where Google’s sketchy behavior threatens to undermine the response to the greatest health crisis this planet has ever seen. Which means that if they truly aspire to “do no evil”, which by now should be clear that they don’t mean that, then they need to respond to this in a much more robust manner so that it encourages people to use these apps to help to get the planet out of this crisis.

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