A social media post is going viral this week, relating to the new Exposure Notification API and as it relates to COVID-19 contact tracing on iPhone. Whilst the origin of the text is unclear, the story is being shared widely across social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and beyond. Unfortunately, the content of the message is little more than fear mongering.

As you will recall, the Exposure Notification API is a collaborative effort from Apple and Google to offer a privacy-preserving method of alerting users if they have recently been in the proximity of a person who has been tested and reported as COVID-19 positive.

Having seemingly been reposed thousands of times at this point, this is the message being sent around:

So, did you know that when everyone was having ‘phone disruptions’ earlier ths week, they were adding COVID-19 Trackers to our phones! If you have an Android phone, go under Settings, then GOOGLE settings and it’s there. If you have an iPhone, go to settings, privacy, then health. It’s there. Check it out. Sneaky. Yes it is off at the moment but under the circumstances who knows if they will not turn it on automatically or make it so that you have to or your phone won’t work properly! Call me suspicious.

With such a scary tone, it’s no surprise that posts like that are garnering thousands of retweets and likes. The reality is it is basically untrue, or at least a significant twist of the truth.

Firstly, we are unaware of any phone disruptions taking place that would be related (perhaps they mean the recent US carrier outage, which is obviously an independent issue). The Exposure Notification API was introduced as part of iOS 13.5 on May 20, and an update for Google Play Services adds the same framework to modern Android devices. There was no nefarious activity taking place to secretly get this added to the iPhone.

Both Apple and Google have been very clear and upfront in explaining what their software solution is. The Software Update release notes for iOS 13.5 started by documenting the purpose of the Exposure Notification feature. You can also see a detailed explanation of what will happen in the settings screen.

 

It’s also unfair for the post to describe Exposure Notification system as a ‘COVID-19 Tracker’. In the Apple and Google approach, there is no tracking going on. The system works by sharing anonymous identifiers over local Bluetooth. No personal information or location information is used.

The post also claims that the feature is currently disabled and could be turned on at any moment. This is simply not true. The Exposure Notification API system does nothing at all on its own. For anything to happen, users must first download an app made by their local government or health institution. These apps are available in a few countries already, with more countries and US states slowly coming onboard in the coming months.

The apps are being specially reviewed by Apple and Google before they hit the respective app store, to ensure they are collecting no private user data. Also, Apple and Google are not allowing any apps to use the Exposure Notification API that are not made by the regional health institutions or government bodies.

When a compatible app is downloaded, the phone will also then prompt you to confirm that you want to use Exposure Notifications. The system is opt-in at every stage.

So, in summary, nothing happens unless you have the government app installed and approve it to start sharing anonymous identifiers. In the future, Apple and Google want to roll out a ‘phase two’ in which some of these capabilities will be built into the operating system itself, without requiring an app. When this happens (seemingly at least a few months away) it will still be opt-in.

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