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Getting COVID notifications on your phone? The MassNotify tracer is setting off privacy alarms

Software appears on phones without warning, but requires user activation

A smartphone running the Android mobile operating system.
A smartphone running the Android mobile operating system.Chris Goodney/Photographer: Chris Goodney/Bloo

Some Massachusetts citizens say the state’s new MassNotify COVID-19 infection tracing software is a threat to their privacy, because it pops up on Android smartphones even if the user hasn’t asked for it.

But that’s a feature, not a bug, according to state officials and Android’s creator, Google. The new software, which rolled out in the past week, is directly integrated into the Android operating system, unlike versions used in other US states which required users to download a separate app. The contact-tracing feature does not work unless a user manually activates it, but you also can’t get rid of the software. (Meanwhile, Apple added the feature to iPhones months ago, with iOS 13.)

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Android phone users in Massachusetts were supposed to receive notification messages explaining how the system works. But a page on the Google Play Store devoted to the new software is crammed with dozens of angry complaints from Android users.

“Your intentions might be good but going about it in a sneaky way just raises HUGE red flags to me,” wrote one critic. Another called it “an abomination,” and added, “This is a major invasion of privacy and autonomy. My phone my choice. This is major government overreach and this is unacceptable.”

MassNotify is based on technology developed last year by Google and Apple, the two dominant makers of smartphone operating systems. Phones running the software (you still have to opt in) will exchange unique digital codes with one another, using the phones’ short-range Bluetooth radios. If a person later comes down with COVID, they would receive a text with instructions on how to anonymously share their result so others can be warned of possible exposure.

So far, 29 US states use the Google-Apple system, but with mixed results. While many scientists say the system could significantly slow the spread of COVID, relatively few people bother to use it, sharply reducing its effectiveness. And now that vaccines against COVID are widely available (at least in the United States), some argue that contact-tracing systems are no longer worth the trouble.

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But those who still want to give the new software a try should go to the gear-shaped Settings icon on their Android phones. This opens a long menu of options. The controls for COVID tracing are under the Google icon. When touched, the words “COVID-19 Exposure Notification” will appear. Tap this message for instructions on how to turn this feature on or off.

To activate the feature on iPhones, tap the Settings icon, and scroll down to “Exposure Notifications.”

For now, if you don’t want to use the feature — on an iPhone or Android phone — you just have to ignore it.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.