Even creepier COVID tracking: Google silently pushed app to users’ phones

(credit: MA Department of Public Health)

Over the weekend, Google and the state of Massachusetts managed to make creepy COVID tracking apps even creepier by automatically installing them on people’s Android phones. Numerous reports on Reddit, Hacker News, and in-app reviews claim that “MassNotify,” Massachusetts’ COVID tracking app, silently installed on their Android device without user consent.

Google gave the following statement to 9to5Google, and the company does not deny silently installing an app.

We have been working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to allow users to activate the Exposure Notifications System directly from their Android phone settings. This functionality is built into the device settings and is automatically distributed by the Google Play Store, so users don’t have to download a separate app. COVID-19 Exposure Notifications are enabled only if a user proactively turns it on. Users decide whether to enable this functionality and whether to share information through the system to help warn others of possible exposure.

Google’s statement doesn’t really address the issue of auto-installing an app without asking. The “functionality” of COVID exposure-tracking apps are built into Google Play Services as an API that government apps can use for their tracking initiatives and can be “automatically distributed by the Google Play Store.”

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