Science, Technology, and Social Media

Massachusetts, Google Installed ‘Spyware’ Onto Phones To Track COVID Cases Without Users Knowing, Lawsuit Alleges

The Massachusetts Public Health Department (DPH) allegedly “worked with” Google to install its COVID-19 contact tracing app onto more than one million android devices without users’ permission or knowledge, a New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) lawsuit claims.

The app was first released in April 2021, but the DPH had a version secretly installed onto devices beginning that June after few Massachusetts residents installed it voluntarily, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The app allegedly causes devices to emit and receive Bluetooth signals even when users do not opt into COVID-19 exposure notifications, and nearby devices that feature the app consequently exchange data that can be linked to specific device owners and locations.

The DPH, Google and other third parties including app developers, device manufacturers and network providers can access such data and use it to determine device owners’ identities when it is written onto mobile devices’ systems, the lawsuit claims. It summarily accuses the department of installing “spyware that deliberately tracks and records movement and personal contacts onto over a million mobile devices without their owners’ permission and awareness.”

“The Massachusetts DPH, like any other government actor, is bound by state and federal constitutional and legal constraints on its conduct,” NCLA Litigation Counsel Peggy Little said, according to a press release. “This ‘android attack,’ deliberately designed to override the constitutional and legal rights of citizens to be free from government intrusions upon their privacy without their consent, reads like dystopian science fiction — and must be swiftly invalidated by the court.”

The DPH even re-installed the contact tracing app onto some Android users’ devices after they discovered its presence and deleted it, the lawsuit alleges. The NCLA claimed Tuesday it did not know of any other state using a “similar surreptitious strategy of auto-installing contact-tracing apps,” citing at least two dozen other states that utilized contact tracing apps in the lawsuit.

Most of the app’s over 1,900 reviews on the Google Play Store featured one-star ratings at press time. Reviewers complained of the app “hiding itself in ‘settings’ instead of appearing as an icon alongside all other apps on the device,” the lawsuit says.

The suit asks the district court to force the DPH to work with Google to uninstall the app from android mobile devices whose owners did not give installation permission.

“The Department of Public Health (DPH) has not received any documentation related to this lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation,” the department told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Google did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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