With so many conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment, it’s all too easy to inadvertently spread incorrect information. The post we’ve seen several times in the last week claims that a ‘coronavirus tracker’ has been automatically installed on Android and iPhones. This comes after the reports of a new feature called ‘COVID-19 Exposure Logging’ being downloaded onto devices without the permission of users.

So what’s actually happened?

Both Google and Apple have updated their operating systems with Exposure Notification API technology. This has been developed by Apple and Google to allow coronavirus tracking apps (made by public health bodies) to work across various devices.

However, this functionality only comes into use once you download an app which requires this feature. If you don’t have an app, the default is “off” so the functionality is disabled. It’s basically the same as choosing not to use Wi-fi or Bluetooth on your phone. If it’s “off”, it is not in use. And the use of tracing applications is not currently going to be mandatory in the UK.

 

Tracking App

If you want to check this for yourself, you can find the feature in settings, though the location depends on your device:

  • iOS users can find it by navigating to ‘Privacy’ and then ‘Health’
  • Android users can find it through their ‘Google Settings’

 

How does a tracing app work?

Contact tracing apps aim to automate the tracing of people who you’ve been in contact with (if you test positive for COVID-19) by using your phone. It uses Bluetooth to broadcast an identifier, a random string of numbers that updates on a regular basis. And importantly, this string doesn’t include any personal information. When your phone is near another Bluetooth device they exchange identifiers. A list of all the devices, in the form of their unique codes, are stored on your phone for 28 days. Nothing else happens unless a user indicates that they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms. If someone you’ve been in contact with then has symptoms, you’re then asked to contact your local healthcare system, e.g NHS 111 in the UK.

So what is going on with the UK tracing app?

We don’t normally bring politics into Dr Logic, but the approach the UK Government has taken towards developing a contact tracing app has been very poor and that affects all of us. An effective track and trace strategy and the supporting infrastructure are vital in ensuring we can start to get back to some semblance of normal, whilst preventing the spread of Coronavirus.

Both Google and Apple made it very clear that they would not support tracing apps which collect and store personal data on centralised servers. But the UK Government ignored the expert’s advice and went ahead anyway. Having wasted three months and millions of pounds, they have now been forced to abandon the centralised coronavirus contact-tracing app. The results of the tests on the Isle of Wight showed that the Government app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices.

Meanwhile, the German Government has created an app which meets the standards required by Google and Apple. It was downloaded 6.5 million times on when it launched on 15th June. It also made its app open source, which means the code is publicly and freely available on Github. In theory, the UK could take this app, translate it into English, upload it to the App Store and it would be ready for use.

As for the UK app, there is no firm date for when it will be available for use.

What can I do?

What is really concerning is that now conspiracy theory posts about the sinister installation of a tracing app is doing the rounds, some people will be too worried or cynical to use an app when it finally does arrive.

The best advice we can offer is to always fact check posts on social media before you share. You may be sharing in good faith, but without realising that this can actually do more harm than good. You can always tweet us @dr_logic to ask our advice.

In the meantime, we’ve been using the COVID-19 Symptom Study app. This was developed by health science company ZOE and it is endorsed by the Welsh Government, NHS Wales, the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland. Participants have downloaded the app and are using it to regularly report on their health, making it the largest public science project of its kind anywhere in the world. App data is being analysed in collaboration with King’s College London researchers. Find out more here