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Were there “disruptions” because COVID-19 trackers were being installed on our phones?

Were there “disruptions” because COVID-19 trackers were being installed on our phones?

Peris Gachahi

Claims (see the screengrab below) have been making the rounds on various social media platforms and messenger apps attributing an alleged “phone disruption” to the installation of COVID-19 trackers on smartphones around the world.

Background

The world is in the midst of battling a public health emergency – the COVID-19 pandemic – that has disrupted operations everywhere. Planes are not in the air as much as they used to be, conferences and sporting tournaments have been cancelled and might not be coming back for months and, depending on where you live, it might be a while before learning institutions re-open.

To combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has necessitated all the drastic measures being implemented the world over, contact tracing methods have been deployed. In China, in the early days of the pandemic, the government put in place a comprehensive system taking advantage of the country’s intrusive surveillance system (made up of a wide network of cameras in public places) and linked it to devices which  people have on them all the time such as smartphones, to identify those who had come into close contact with diagnosed COVID-19 patients.

In March, the country started requiring its citizens to install an application on their phones that shared information with the authorities which would then determine if they could be allowed into public spaces or were instead advised to stay in quarantine to avoid being a risk to others.

Singapore came up with a contact tracing app early on as well and has since shifted to developing a contact tracing wearable, something that Hong Kong has been doing.

In Kenya, the government has been relying on cell phone triangulation – in partnership with mobile network operators – to do contact tracing.

Both the Kenyan and Chinese approaches have come under criticism because of the trade-off they subject citizens to: a choice between their health, and their privacy.

In April, Apple and Google, the companies that run the biggest smartphone ecosystems in the world – with 100% market share among themselves according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) – came together to unveil a new contact tracing solution to make it easy for parties around the world to implement contact tracing in a way that’s helpful and respectful to individual privacy since the devices in use are reliant on their respective mobile platforms, iOS and Android.

“Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health organizations have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread. A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy,” the two companies said in a joint statement posted on their websites back then (see here and here).

Verification

The contract tracing solution proposed by Apple and Google, and which they embarked on implementing, was to be rolled out last month, in the first phase of the partnership between the two technology giants. The result of the rollout is what we are now seeing on our devices:

The above can be viewed under Settings > Privacy > Health on iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) and Settings > Google > COVID-19 Exposure Notifications on Android devices (Samsung, Oppo, Tecno, Infinix, Huawei, Xiaomi and many other phone brands).

This update was brought to devices running on Android and iOS around the world, and has been rolling out over the last few days. It arrived on devices in Kenya over the last 48-72 hours hence the panicking, mass hysteria and false information around its arrival and how it works.

Here is how it works: assume you are using a Samsung smartphone and you interact with someone using an Apple iPhone who is later determined to have contracted COVID-19, the solution implemented by Apple and Google makes it easy for your two phones, which run on two totally different platforms, to communicate and maintain a trail (for up to 14 days) that can be used by the authorities to trace you and inform you of the measures (testing, quarantine etc) needed to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. For that to happen, however, authorities need to build applications that tap into the interface (as you can see on your phone) availed by Apple and Google.

See Also

Where no such application is available in a user’s country (as is the case currently in Kenya) or installed on one’s device, the contact tracing cannot happen. Where a corresponding application is installed (installed by visiting the platform’s respective app store), the user has to grant the necessary permissions (as can be seen in the screengrabs above) for the tracing to be possible. You can read more about the privacy-preserving contact tracing here.

Now that we know how the contact tracing system which can be enabled through our devices works, how did the Exposure Notifications setting arrive on your phone?

Easy. Google, Apple and other tech companies use server-side updates to push new features to users’ devices without requiring any form of action on the users’ end. It is how you wake up to new features on WhatsApp, for instance, without you ever having to update the app itself on your phone from the App Store or the Google Play Store. This is also how the COVID-19 contact tracing solution that many of us are discovering on our phones was put there. It did not arrive by some sort of magic or, as is being alleged, after “phone disruptions”.

You certainly receive server-side updates on your device many other times without noticing it, because that is how it’s meant to be. If you use an Android device, for instance, Google releases numerous updates almost every fortnight through Google Play Services, a background service and API package for Android devices from Google. Are those updates usually accompanied by disruptions to the point where your device is rendered unusable for such a prolonged period that you would notice it? Not a chance. Service disruptions can be the result of many things but in most cases, are as a result of common network faults that are usually resolved in no time.

Verdict

While yes, users of devices that run on software from Google and Apple can see a contact tracing interface on their devices, no it was not the cause of any sort of service disruption in the past and claims to that effect are FALSE!

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