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Debunked: No, 'Covid-19 sensors' have not been 'inserted secretly into every phone'

The post is part of a category of conspiracies that has targeted contact tracing apps launched to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

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A POST BEING shared on Facebook in recent days has been repeating false claims that a “Covid-19 sensor has been inserted secretly into every phone”.

The post is part of a category of conspiracies that has targeted contact tracing apps launched to help stop the spread of Covid-19. 

The HSE’s Covid-19 tracing app has been in operation since the beginning of July. It uses technology developed by Google and Apple to alert users if they have been a close contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19.

The false claim uses the involvement of the tech companies to claim that a “Covid-19 sensor” exists whether people have a smartphone running on iOS or Android.

The post being shared in Ireland over the past few days is actually a screenshot of the claim made on the Facebook page of a US-based user. 

The post in Ireland has been shared 58 times since Wednesday. 

PastedImage-41522 Source: Facebook

Exposure Notifications

As mentioned above, exposure notification is a tool developed by Google and Apple to support governments and public health authorities develop contact tracing apps.

The system means that anyone who has a contact tracing app on their phone can be sent a notification if they’ve likely been exposed to Covid-19.

In the case of the HSE’s app, people who test positive for the virus will be able to choose if they want to anonymously alert other app users who they have been in close contact with.

While both Google and Apple are offering the use of the tool, neither company is directly involved in how a country’s health service develops an individual app. 

The system works through generating a random ID for every person using a contact tracing app, which changes every 15-20 minutes to prevent a users’ location from being tracked.

These random IDs would be transferred between phones via Bluetooth, with contact tracing apps keeping a list of anyone a user meets who also has the app installed.

However, exposure notifications cannot do this unless a contact tracing app is installed.

This is key to the above claim in that, while updated Android and iOS phones have the system in place on phones if required, the exposure notifications are only activated if a contact tracing app is installed. 

So in that sense, while the tool is in place on people’s phones if required, it is not correct to say that has been “inserted in every phone”.

In any case, the tool is not a “sensor” that detects Covid-19, but is in fact a system that allows users to opt-in to contact tracing.  

Tracking

In terms of the claim that “you will be tracked everywhere you go”, concerns have been raised about users’ privacy in relation the exposure notifications system.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have outlined Google Play Services contacts Google servers roughly every 10-20 minutes, allowing fine-grained location tracking via IP address.

However, this issue has been known about apps using Google Play Services for many years, and is not unique to the Covid app trackers or any new updates. 

In the case of the system, the random ID that’s generated also prevents  a users’ location from being tracked.

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Google, in a statement, said: “In keeping with our privacy commitments for the Exposure Notification API, Apple and Google do not receive information about the end user, location data, or information about any other devices the user has been in proximity of.”

- With reporting by Tadgh McNally

***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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