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Google Promises Privacy With Virus App but Can Still Collect Location Data

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Switzerland's contact tracing app.

Switzerland asked Google to decouple the location setting requirement on Android phones from Bluetooth, which the countrys virus alert app uses to detect nearby smartphones.

Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

When Google and Apple announced plans in April for free software to help alert people of their possible exposure to the coronavirus, the companies promoted it as "privacy preserving" and said it would not track users' locations. Encouraged by those guarantees, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries used the code to develop national virus alert apps that have been downloaded more than 20 million times.

But for the apps to work on smartphones with Google's Android operating system — the most popular in the world — users must first turn on the device location setting, which enables GPS and may allow Google to determine their locations.

Some government officials seemed surprised that the company could detect Android users' locations. After learning about it, Cecilie Lumbye Thorup, a spokeswoman for Denmark's Health Ministry, said her agency intended to "start a dialogue with Google about how they in general use location data."

Switzerland said it had pushed Google for weeks to alter the location setting requirement.

"Users should be able to use such proximity tracing apps without any bindings with other services," said Dr. Sang-Il Kim, the department head for digital transformation at Switzerland's Federal Office of Public Health, who oversees the country's virus-alert app.


From The New York Times
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