Yesterday, Google decided to remove the Iranian government’s official Covid-19 app from its Play Store. The app itself was billed as a tool to help test and track persons infected with the new coronavirus—but it would appear that many feared more nefarious reasons behind the app, highlighting Iranians’ distrust of their government at a crucially sensitive time.
The story was initially reported by ZDNet, which had malware researcher Lukas Stefanko review the app. Stefanko reportedly didn’t find anything particularly fishy in the app’s APK. Gizmodo reached out to Google to ask for an official reason why the app was pulled but didn’t receive an immediate response. Barring any malware, it’s likely that the app—dubbed AC19—was removed due to claims it was able to detect if a person was infected with Covid-19... which common sense would tell you is impossible through a mobile app. Science would also tell you that’s impossible.
This tracks with other instances of tech companies policing their platforms for jerks trying to peddle misinformation or profit off coronavirus. Apple recently decided to crack down on coronavirus apps, systematically removing any app that wasn’t submitted by a “recognised institution.” Likewise, YouTube has demonetised coronavirus content, Facebook has banned ads for face masks, and Amazon has banned over 1 million products for price gouging and false coronavirus claims.
Part of the suspicion surrounding AC19, however, stems from Iranian citizens’ distrust of their government. In particular, the Covid-19 app requested real-time location data that was sent to a remote server. After coronavirus began to spread in Iran, citizens were sent a mass SMS urging them to download the app. It was also recently reported that the app had been developed by Smart Land Strategy, a firm that built two Telegram copycat apps called Gold Telegram and HotGram. These two apps were then reportedly removed from the Google Play Store for allegedly collecting user data without consent for Iranian intelligence agencies.
It probably doesn’t help that MJ Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, tweeted the government had the location data of 4 million people who downloaded the AC19 app.
از دادهکاوی اطلاعات ۳ میلیون نفر از مشارکتکنندگان در اپلیکیشن ac19، این نقشهی میزان خطر احتمال ابتلا به #کرونا در مناطق تهران به دست آمد.
رسانه باشید تا دیگران نیز از مخاطرات اطراف خود آگاه شوند. لطفا در خانه بمانید!
#همهباهم برای ایران???????? pic.twitter.com/5slrA8iDhW
— MJ Azari Jahromi (@azarijahromi) March 9, 2020
While it can’t be definitively said that the AC19 app is intended for spying, ZDNet cited unnamed dissidents who fear subsequent updates may result in the Iranian government using this location data for shady purposes. Even if Google pulled the app for misleading claims, the move does not exactly quash fears that the AC19 app may not be as harmless as it appears. Those fears underscore public distrust during a national health crisis—a problem that isn’t limited to Iran and something that does not bode well for containing a highly contagious virus on a global scale.