In mid-May 2020, the following status update screenshot circulated on Facebook, urging people with iPhones (and possibly Android devices) to “turn off … exposure COVID notifications” via a series of directions in settings:
It’s likely the image above circulated as a screenshot due to Facebook’s organization of COVID-19-related content (spaces between the letters in “COVID” also suggested attempts to circumvent the algorithms.) White text against a blue background read:
Turn OFF your Exposure C O V I D Notifications on your phones. Go to Settings 👉 Privacy 👉 Health 👉 Turn Off C o v i d 19
Facebook’s text-based status updates in the image-generating format above limited the available number of characters, so no contextual information appeared with the claim. However, it implied that the setting described activated automatically on iPhones and/or Androids.
We first checked the claim on an iPhone 11, navigating from Settings to Privacy and then Health. Although the phone was updated to iOS 13.5, we did not see any “COVID-19 setting” displayed to toggle on or off:
According to rumors about COVID-19 contact tracing and iPhones or Androids, contact tracing functionality was purportedly native to the iOS 13.5 installation:
But when we updated the iPhone, contact tracing was mentioned in the release notes:
Additional text suggested that any COVID-19 contact tracing functionality was not native to the update, and instead secondary to functionality on opt-in, third-party public health apps:
iOS 13.5 speeds up access to the passcode field on devices with Face ID when you are wearing a face mask and introduces the Exposure Notification API to support COVID-19 contact tracing apps from public health authorities. This update …
According to a May 20 2020 article on Apple-centric site 9to5Mac.com, the functionality is indeed opt-in and of limited scope:
Apple and Google have been developing the Exposure Notification API with close guidance from public health officials. When a user enables the feature and has an app from a public health authority installed, the device will regularly send out a beacon via Bluetooth that includes a random Bluetooth identifier. From there, the Exposure Notification API will download a list of the keys for the beacons that have been verified as belonging to people confirmed as positive for COVID-19 and check against that list. If there is a match, the user may be notified and advised on next steps.
Apple and Google say that as of today, a handful of U.S. states and 22 countries across five continents have requested and received access to the Exposure Notification API. The two companies say they have consulted with and briefed a number of different public health teams, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC Foundation, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the Public Health Informatics Institute of the Taskforce for Global Health.
Therefore, it seems that some people might see such a setting on their phone — but likely only if they installed a separate state or local public health app by a public health authority. Since we had no such app installed, we did not see the functionality to toggle anything related COVID-19 on or off.
A separate 9to5Mac.com article from May 19 2020 explained how to enable or disable COVID-19 contact tracing, noting:
Anonymous COVID-19 contact tracing via Bluetooth (not GPS location) is available with iOS 13.5.
Contact tracing is called “Exposure Notifications” on iPhone and is turned off at the system level by default. You’ll have to download an app from your local health authority that will require your explicit permission to use anonymous Bluetooth data for it to work when phase one of the rollout starts in May .
Apple and Google have said that phase two of the contact tracing software will allow it to work without a third-party health authority app, but that won’t happen until later [in 2020].
Only users who installed third-party COVID-19 apps were opted into contact tracing functionality, the site reported, continuing:
Note: The “COVID-19 Exposure Logging” toggle is disabled by default in iOS 13.5. This does not collect any data without you installing and authorizing a local health authority app, which will be available soon. Apple and Google’s exposure notification system will be completely opt-in.
How to turn on/off COVID-19 contact tracing on iPhone
- On iOS 13.5 and later, head to Settings on your iPhone
- Swipe down and tap Privacy
- Now choose Health
- Tap COVID-19 Exposure Logging at the top
- For now, you’ll need an authorized app before Exposure Notifications can be turned on. But then you can tap the toggle to turn notifications on or off
- You can also delete the exposure logs manually at any time at the bottom of the settings
- Follow along here for when apps from health authorities become available
“Contact tracing” has become something of a big-tech boogeyman on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. The practice of contact tracing was decades old, not invented by Apple or Google, and remained a key function of public health — particularly during an active pandemic:
Contact tracing, a core disease control measure employed by local and state health department personnel for decades, is a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19. Immediate action is needed. Communities must scale up and train a large contact tracer workforce and work collaboratively across public and private agencies to stop the transmission of COVID-19.
Although it is partly true that a pool of users with COVID-19 public health apps might have been opted in to contact tracing with the iOS 13.5 update, “COVID-19 Exposure Logging” did not function independently of those apps as of May 22 2020. Later functionality was expected to work independent of those apps, but only users who had downloaded a third-party app would see the “COVID-19 Exposure Logging” toggle on or off option. Contact tracing wis not a technology conspiracy, but a pre-social media strategy for minimizing public exposure to infections disease.
Finally, the irony of taking to Facebook to rail on egregious privacy violations cannot be overstated.