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Google automatically installed a COVID-19 tracking app on phones in this state

Google silently installed Massachusetts’ exposure notification app, sparking privacy and security concerns

A Motorola MotoG4, a Sony Xperia XA and a OnePlus A3000.
This Oct. 21, 2016, photo shows a Motorola MotoG4, right, a Sony Xperia XA, center, and a OnePlus A3000, in New York.
Richard Drew, Associated Press

On June 15, Massachusetts launched its exposure notification app, MassNotify. Within two days, the app had 500,000 sign-ins equal to 7% of the state’s population, reports The Boston Globe.

  • Comparatively, Alabama’s exposure notification app only had 150,000 downloads from August to November, says The Boston Globe.

The reason for Massachusetts’ success? Google automatically and silently installed the app on Android phones, reports The Verge.

Why was it downloaded automatically?

Android users in Massachusetts began noticing the app on their phones this last week without ever receiving a notification or downloading it themselves. Users began circulating their concerns on Reddit and in one-star app reviews, reports Arts Technica.

  • According to Google’s statement via 9to5Google, the MassNotify app was “automatically distributed.”
  • Users still need to sign onto the app to activate it, says The Verge.
  • In the Google Play Store, Massachusetts’ MassNotify app has over 1 million downloads despite only being released one week ago, says Arts Technica.

Users expressed security and privacy concerns after finding the app automatically downloaded, says The Verge.

How does the exposure notification app work?

MassNotify uses a program developed by Google and Apple where nearby phones exchange random codes via Bluetooth. The app then keeps track of all exposures and, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, will notify everyone recently exposed to that person, reports The Verge. The more people on the app, the more effective it becomes.

  • Massachusetts is the 29th state to launch an exposure notification app, reports The Verge.

Widespread concerns about the privacy and security of these apps have prevented them from being adopted more widely, says The Boston Globe.

  • By one assessment, every 200 downloads had the potential to save a life, says The Boston Globe.
  • One survey from earlier this year found that 50% of Americans do not trust COVID-19 tracking apps, says Arts Technica.

Will the app help Massachusetts?

COVID-19 cases have declined dramatically in Massachusetts with mask mandates being lifted last month, says The Boston Globe. The state’s decision to launch an exposure notification system this late has surprised and confused many experts.

  • The app may be too late to be useful, reports The Boston Globe.