Google’s Coronavirus Contact Tracing Setting Isn’t Tracking You

exposure notification system
Image: Getty

Last month Google and Apple officially announced their joint coronavirus contact tracing API. It’s called the Exposure Notification System and has been designed for contact tracing apps like COVIDSafe. It first appeared in Apple’s iOS 13.5 update and is now on Android too. But it’s not actually doing anything yet.

The point of the Exposure Notification System is to help with contact tracing. Google and Apple have reported that their API will help with detection as well as battery drain. These are both issues that Australians have seen with COVIDSafe. Cross-boarder contact tracing has also been raised by Google and Apple. You can read more about the tech improvements here.

 

Android Exposure Notification System

Some of you may have noticed the top of your Google settings now has a new inclusion — ‘COVID-19 Exposure Notifications’. This doesn’t mean you’re being traced or that an app has been installed on your phone.

The Exposure Notification System on Android and iOS needs to be rolled into a contact tracing app to work. For Australians, that’s COVIDSafe. But we still don’t know if or when the government will actually use the new system.

If you click into the new settings on Android, you’ll find that it can only be interacted with if attached to an appropriate app.

“To turn on COVID-19 exposure notifications, install or finish setting up a participating app.”

So basically, it’s not doing anything yet. But even if the government includes it in a future COVIDSafe update, there are some strong caveats that have been built around the  Exposure Notification System.

The new contact tracing Google setting on Android

Privacy

Privacy is obviously a big concern when it comes to contact tracing. And having this new setting suddenly appear on people’s devices might seem like a red flag.

The good news is that it’s entirely voluntary. You’re in control of whether to use it or not in the future. In addition to that, there is a sunset clause so the API will be disabled once the danger has passed.

Here are the stipulations Google and Apple have placed on any government or app that wants to use this technology and functionality:

  • Users need to choose to turn on exposure notifications and can switch them of at anytime
  • Device location is not collected, including for those who test positive for COVID-19
  • Other users, Google and Apple do not know the identity of users
  • Exposure notification matching is done on device only and is controlled by the user
  • Only official public health authorities are allowed to use the system
  • The system will be disabled on a region by region basis once it is no longer necessary to be used
As you can see, this doesn’t do anything yet. But it will allow you to turn it off if or when the Exposure Notification System is rolled into COVIDSafe. Even then, you’ll need to manually download COVIDSafe for anything to happen.

Rules

There are also strict rules that need to be followed in order for an app to utilise the Exposure Notification System. For example, only a Public Health Authority (PHA) app like COVIDSafe can use it. Here is what else the companies have stipulated:

  • Apps that use the API must be created for or by a PHA and can only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing
  • Only apps with user consent will be allowed to use the API
  • Apps must have user consent to share positive test results and the bluetooth ‘keys’ attached to their device with a PHA
  • No targeted advertising and only minimal data can be collected for COVID-19 tracing only
  • The API is restricted to one app per country. For Australia that is COVIDSafe

When will the Exposure Notification System work?

At the moment we still don’t know. While the functionality is there, it needs to be incorporated into COVIDSafe. And for that to happen the app might actually need a complete overhaul.

Despite the new functionality being available for month, we still don’t know what the government’s plans for it are.

“The DTA and the Department of Health have been working with Apple and Google to understand and test the Exposure Notification Framework since it was released to see how it can be applied in Australia. That testing is ongoing,” said a DTA spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia on May 21.

It’s worth noting that the Exposure Notification System may not work on older devices or some Huawei phones.