Here’s a story you may not have seen coming. Back during the height of the pandemic, state and municipal governments were scrambling to find ways to implement contact tracing to track the spread of the virus and allegedly “flatten the curve.” Much of that effort relied on self-reporting, while some areas offered apps that people could install on their phones to record their movements and determine who they had been close to. But it’s now been revealed that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health took a more, shall we say… proactive approach. They joined forces with Google to install a spyware-style tracking app on millions of people’s Android phones without bothering to tell them they had done so. And the data was vacuumed up and delivered to the government in secret. Now they are facing a lawsuit from a civil rights organization. (Fox Business)
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) is facing a class-action lawsuit for allegedly using Google technology to covertly install tracking apps on over one million Android phones as part of the state government’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), a nonpartisan civil rights firm, accused the Bay State’s health department of “brazen disregard for civil liberties” by installing “spyware that deliberately tracks and records movement and personal contacts onto over a million mobile devices without their owners’ permission and awareness.” The class-action suit claims DPH is in violation of both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.
“Conspiring with a private company to hijack residents’ smartphones without the owners’ knowledge or consent is not a tool that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (‘DPH’) may lawfully employ in its efforts to combat COVID-19,” the lawsuit said.
The details of how this played out sound like the plot of some sort of dystopian novel. The app was originally developed by Google in partnership with the Massachusetts DPH and offered to the public as a way to combat the spread of the virus. The problem was that very few people wound up installing it.
That’s when DPH worked with Google to secretly install and activate the app when users ran their normal software updates. When some people discovered the app running on their phones in the background and deleted it, Google would just install it again during the next update. Somehow, even though some users complained about it, this story never managed to make it into the news.
How in the world did anyone at DPH think this was a reasonable idea and approve the plan? This sounds like something that would happen in China, the Soviet Union, or Cuba during the worst days of Castro. We already know that Google spies on us and records (and sells) massive amounts of our data, and that’s bad enough. But this is a case of a state government colluding with Google to invade the privacy of millions of people in secret.
I’ll confess that I was one of those people who adopted a very laissez-faire attitude toward Google’s intrusive practices for many years, writing it off as the price of using their products for free. I even signed up for the Google Guides program, writing reviews of businesses I patronized and receiving monthly updates of everywhere I had traveled and all of the places I visited. I have recently dropped out of that and uninstalled the associated app from my phone. But I’m pretty much certain that my phone is still tracking me without telling me.
Google is simply out of control. Between this story and the revelations that they were colluding with the White House to suppress conservative speech, sending GOP fundraising emails to the user’s G-mail spam folder, and forcing search returns for Republican candidates to the bottom of the search results list, Google looks more like a crime syndicate than a company. And it’s unclear what can be done about it, particularly when the party that still controls most of the power in Washington seems quite happy to let them do it and even works with them to accomplish those goals. The monster may have already grown too large to tame.