Culture

Some Android users say Google's installing a contract tracing app without consent

If you own an Android device and live in the Bay State, you should probably check your phone’s settings menu.

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Some Android users in Massachusetts are reporting an unnerving find in recent days: the state’s COVID-19 contract tracing app, MassNotify, is appearing on their smartphones without their consent, prompting concerns over security, data usage, and privacy. Although Google has clarified that the notification system is essentially a device update distributed via its Google Play Store and has to be manually enabled by individuals to work, the shoddy rollout and radio silence surrounding its debut has understandably alarmed those affected.

Since news and notice of MassNotify’s quiet arrival on Android phones, the app has been review-bombed in the Play Store, with an average one-star rating from nearly 650 reviews at the time of writing. “Ghost installed on my phone without my consent. While I believe in what this app was meant to do, installing it without so much as a notification is extremely alarming. Also, should have been done a year ago (with user permission, of course),” one reviewer wrote over the weekend.

How to uninstall the app — As BleepingComputer explains, not only is the app an unwelcome surprise for many Bay State Android users, but it’s also a bit of a headache to fully uninstall. Since the app does not appear to include any direct icon, nor is it easily accessible by searching “MassNotify” in the Google Play Store, Android owners instead will need to head to the actual MassNotify Google Play Store URL to make the change.

A bad look for a good service — Early evidence shows that, when combined with adequate and efficient testing resources, contract tracing apps are a useful means to reduce infection rates and keep the public informed about exposure risks. That said, users’ privacy rights are also extremely important to consider, as is the public’s wariness of governmental and Big Tech-related digital invasiveness (for some very well-earned reasons... as well as some extremely unearned ones).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Massachusetts’ MassNotify system — on the contrary, it could be incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how this particular program will recover from its impressively terrible execution.