You may have spotted a coronavirus settings screen appearing on your phone over the weekend, but it isn’t an app, and it’s nothing to worry about. Here’s why.
Have you seen friends over the weekend posting on social media that a COVID-19 contact tracing app has been sneakily installed on your phone without consent?
If so, you were probably worried: nobody likes the thought of something being installed on their phone without their knowledge or agreement.
Six years ago, Apple and U2 were shocked at the backlash when as a giveaway the grandiose Irish band’s album Songs of Innocence was dropped directly into iTunes users’ libraries.
It turns out that people like to know and control what’s on their devices – who’d have thought it?
However, the good news is that you haven’t had a contact tracing app installed by stealth on your phone. But you’d be forgiven for thinking so.
New settings screen
What people are referring to is a new setting on both Android phones and iPhones for Covid-19 notifications:
It rather confusingly says ‘the app can notify you if you’ve been near someone who reported having COVID-19.’ Unsurprisingly, people have assumed this means that the setting is in fact an app.
But it’s not – there’s no need to worry.
You might have seen talk over the past few weeks about ‘the Google-Apple approach’, and it hasn’t helped that some aren’t checking in with tech experts, and have erroneously referred to this as ‘the Google-Apple app’.
— Robert Peston (@Peston) June 18, 2020
So, to be absolutely clear: Google and Apple have not built an app and they’re not going to build an app.
What’s actually happened is that Google and Apple announced a few weeks ago that they would build a software framework – called an API (or Application Program Interface) – into Android and iOS that would allow contact-tracing apps made by health authorities and governments to work on mobile phones.
This has been controversial because Google and Apple’s approach only allows one way of contact tracing: their approach allows an app to use the Bluetooth on your phone to register which other phones you’ve been close to.
Then, if you choose to report that you’ve either got COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19, the people whose phones were near yours can be alerted by their phones.
So, where’s the actual app then?
The app that had been built and was last week abandoned by the government would have uploaded your phone’s ID to a central server, where your contacts would be matched and from where alerts would have been sent.
Google and Apple decided that they would not allow this, and instead built this new software framework into their operating systems. This means the contact matching is done on your phone rather than on the central server.
Privacy advocates prefer the Google-Apple approach, saying that the app that NHSX – the digital arm of the NHS – built compromised privacy.
At the moment, there is no UK app that does contact tracing.
What you’re seeing on your phone is this new software framework that was pushed out in a routine update that will allow an NHS app to work.
When the new app is published to the App Store and Google Play, it will be up to you if you download and install it, and it will ask for permission to use Bluetooth on your phone.
It can’t work without that opt-in permission from you. So you have a double layer of protection: first, it will be your choice whether or not to install the app, and second, it will be your choice to grant it access to the functions it needs.
It’s a complicated story with many twists and turns and it’s not a surprise that people have been confused, but the bottom line is that this new screen is nothing to worry about.
Did you spot it on your phone? Were you concerned?