Tuesday 27 September 2022

Did Google automatically installa Covid-19 tracker on phones in Costa Rica?

The move sparked fears and fueled conspiracy theories.

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QCOSTARICA – On June 11, the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) enabled the COVID-19 contact notification system developed by Google and Apple, “Mascarilla Digital” (Digital Mask).

Digital Mask, which went into action on June 16, for both iPhone and Android, is a voluntary service that does not store any personal information about users or their location said Health and the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación, Tecnología y Telecomunicaciones (MICITT), who supported the introduction of the app.

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The service will be available from Wednesday, June 16 for both iPhone and Android users.

The website Rest of World (restofworld.org) an international nonprofit journalism organization that documents what happens when technology, culture and the human experience collide, reports that, on June 11, Costa Ricans awoke to a mysterious new app icon, reading “Ministerio de Salud de Costa Rica,” appearing on their Android phones without their permission.

Within hours, the mystery was revealed: the Ministry of Health announced it was part of a contact tracing program.

Costa Rica was the first country in the world to launch the initiative, and a system update mistakenly portrayed the icon as an app before the government was able to announce it.

“Malditas ratas installing applications without our consent and behind our backs,” wrote another Twitter user, a computer technician named Diego Vargas, who declared himself to be “anti-feminazis, anti-progressive” in his bio.

Vargas told Rest of World that when he saw people complaining on Twitter about the app, he went to check his Android phone. It did not appear on the homepage. As an IT worker, though, he knew to look under the system list of all his applications, and there it was — Ministry of Health of Costa Rica, 12.28MB. His parents, also Android users, had it too.

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“I have the installation of apps disabled on my phone, including updates and even Google applications,” he said. “But this app appeared on my phone just like that.”

In April 2020, as the pandemic spread throughout the world, Apple and Google joined forces to develop a contact tracing platform that would be operable across devices. The plan was to work with public health officials across the world, utilizing Bluetooth technology to help governments inform the public about their exposure to the virus.

The Costa Rican government was eager to get involved early. Jorge Mora, director of digital governance at Costa Rica’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Telecommunications, was enthusiastic about the potential of the program, but understood that people would be wary of downloading tracing apps on their phones. “These types of applications at the global level have had a certain utility, but also face resistance,” he told Rest of World.

But the two tech companies were also developing another method of contract tracing: Exposure Notifications Express, a system that does not require people to download a separate application. Instead, it would be programmed directly into a phone’s device settings. Users would then be able to toggle it on or off right from the settings page, with the default setting being in the “off” mode.

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It was a bit like the idea behind the infamous pre-downloaded U2 album on the iPhone: The file would be there, but it would be up to the user to activate it.

In June, Costa Rica was set to become the first location in the world to launch the new system. Mora was excited that, by having the contact tracing built into phones’ operating settings, there would be significantly less friction. Users would receive an alert and choose whether to turn it on or off. “It gives us the opportunity to really generate a message of transparency,” he said.

Everything went according to plan on Apple devices. On June 17, right after the program launched, iPhone users received a notification that Exposure Notifications were available.
Spotted in an Android phone’s “App information” section: “Health Ministry of Costa Rica”

This did not happen on many Android phones. On June 11, before the government announced the initiative, Android users saw the new icon. Mora called it “unexpected behavior” from the platform — in other words, a bug.

“We are aware of reports on some Android phones showing configuration errors or an Exposure Notifications app on their home screens,” a Google representative told Rest of World.

“It wasn’t the rollout we wanted for the product,” Mora said. “It came with a negative emotion for a positive program.” He watched as people took to social media, expressing their frustration with the intrusion, as well as conspiracy theories over what the icon represented. The conspiracist argument seemed to be reinforced when, the next week, a similarly botched Covid-19 tracking launch occurred in Massachusetts.

The botched launch negatively affected the entire program. Costa Ricans worried they had been automatically enrolled in a government scheme. Experts like Mora knew that the tracker wasn’t an app, let alone a governmental monitoring device, but he was powerless to stop the emerging narrative. The damage had now been done: Adoption of the tracing software has been slower than the Costa Rican government hoped for, according to Mora.

For Vargas, the computer technician, it all confirmed his sense of government overreach and surveillance. After he saw the Ministry of Health icon on his phone, he changed his Twitter banner to a screenshot of a character from the Batman franchise, looking dismayed at a wall of surveillance screens.

Vargas has read the explanations from the government, but he doesn’t plan on opting in to the system any time soon. “With everything they have done to harm instead of benefit the population with the pandemic, honestly it’s just another lie,” he told Rest of World.

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