People tend to share fake social media forwards and from time to time the same message gets circulated among many thousands of people – sometimes more. Often these messages are spread via messenger platforms like Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber. Recently, a similar message being spread on WhatsApp caught our attention.
The message, which stated that Google had added a COVID-19 tracking chip to all phones as an update to its mobile phones has the potential to create moral panic. The forward went on to tell readers that if their phones were being disrupted the previous week, it was because the COVID-19 trackers were being included in their mobile phones. People were also urged to go to their phone settings to verify this.
The viral WhatsApp forward can be seen below:
We also noticed that the post was shared on Facebook by several users as can be seen below:
Due to the high penetration of smartphones both locally and globally, the message has the potential to mislead a large number of consumers. Hence, we felt it necessary to ascertain the truth behind these claims.
We first had a look at several Android phones, checking to see if anything related to Google was updated under the phone’s settings as mentioned in the viral message. We were able to ascertain that most smartphones have actually updated their COVID-19 notification settings under the Google settings as can be seen below:
Paying close attention to the information in the settings, we discovered that Google had in fact enabled this service to help users check if those infected with COVID-19 were in the vicinity of the Android user. In order to make use of this service, Bluetooth service needs to be activated. Further, there is no evidence to support the idea that a sensor was inserted into the phone.
Further investigations proved that the COVID-19 EXPOSURE NOTIFICATION was a joint initiative between Apple and Google. Details of this initiative have already been published across international media and information about its implementation in India can be found here. Several analysts had also commented on the Google update on COVID-19 which was published in Reuters.
Google says the Exposure Notification System is designed to be central to one’s privacy and security. This means your identity will not be shared with other Google or Apple users. A video posted by Google described how this service works:
According to Google, the service works as follows: Once you activate the service, the Exposure Notification will generate a Random ID for your phone. To ensure that this random number cannot be used to identify you or your location, the number is changed every 10-20 minutes. In turn, your phone and the phone’s around you which have their Bluetooth switched on will work in the background using the random number. This means you don’t need to have the compatible app switched on for the service to work. Your phone will periodically check all the random numbers associated with positive COVID-19 events with its list. If there is a match, the public health authorities will notify you through the app on how to keep you and the people around you safe. Only Google provides this API service only and has explained the workflow as follows:
Therefore, people are able to access this facility only via an app managed by their respective government health authorities. To reiterate – the feature will only work if the phone’s Bluetooth is enabled.
On inquiring from the Health Promotion Bureau in Sri Lanka as to whether such a mobile app works in this manner fetching the Google API data, we discovered that no such app is currently functioning in the country. Further, Sri Lanka already has an efficient contact tracing method in place which enabled the country to track down those infected with the COVID-19 virus and contain its spread at the early stages. It should also be noted that no new patients have been discovered in local communities for over two months now and there is little to no need to inform the public through such a notification system.
The Indian Government launched an app named Aarogya Setu for contact tracing purposes but due to compatibility issue with the Google API and Aarogya Setu app, Exposure notification feature is not available even in India to date. The excerpt featured above is a quote from an article published in Indian Express on 30th June 2020.
The article also talked about the countries where the feature is active as can be seen below:
In the light of the above findings, it is clearly evident that neither Google nor Apple have inserted a sensor into mobile phones as was mentioned on the viral WhatsApp forward. The COVID-19 Exposure notifications service does not trace your location either. Furthermore, there is no state-owned healthcare app in Sri Lanka which supports the API service provided by Apple and Google. Hence the service is not currently available in Sri Lanka.
Title:Covid-19 Sensor Has Not Been Inserted Into Your Mobile Phone… Here’s The Truth!Fact Check By: Shanaya Seneviratne