Lawsuit claims Mass. worked with Google to secretly install Covid contact-tracing app on Android phones

A class-action lawsuit filed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance alleges that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health coordinated with Google to covertly install tracking apps on more than a million Android phones.

According to the filing, Google was allegedly urged to install spyware on cell phones during the COVID-19 pandemic as a method of contact tracing.

The state developed a COVID-19 contact-tracing software application for Android mobile devices using an Application Programming Interface (“API”) provided by Google, the lawsuit noted.

“An initial version of the App was made available in April 2021, but few Massachusetts residents voluntarily installed that version. To increase adoption, starting on June 15, 2021, DPH worked with Google to secretly install the Contact Tracing App onto over one million Android mobile devices located in Massachusetts without the device owners’ knowledge or permission,” NCLA claimed. “When some Android device owners discovered and subsequently deleted the App, DPH would re-install it on to their devices. The App causes an Android mobile device to constantly connect and exchange information with other nearby devices via Bluetooth and creates a record of such other connections.”

NCLA alleges the exchange process can make the time-stamped, stored data in a person’s Android phone available to DPH, Google and application developers. The data may include phone numbers and personal emails, according to Fox Business.

“Those with access to the system logs can also use time stamped data… to determine the owner’s past contacts, locations and movement,” the complaint further alleged, adding that they believe the “spyware still exists on the overwhelming majority of the devices on which it was installed.”

While at least two dozen other states developed COVID contact-tracing apps using Google technology, Fox Business reported that those states engaged in community outreach and encouraged their residents to voluntarily download and use the app.

“Massachusetts, however, is the only State to surreptitiously embed the Contact Tracing App on mobile devices that DPH locates within its borders, without obtaining the owners’ knowledge or consent,” NCLA claimed in the lawsuit.

NCLA litigation counsel Peggy Little said the alleged actions violated the constitutional rights of residents in the state.

“The Massachusetts DPH, like any other government actor, is bound by state and federal constitutional and legal constraints on its conduct,” Little said. “This ‘android attack,’ deliberately designed to override the constitutional and legal rights of citizens to be free from government intrusions upon their privacy without their consent, reads like dystopian science fiction — and must be swiftly invalidated by the court.”

Noting that “many states and foreign countries have successfully deployed contact tracing apps by obtaining the consent of their citizen,” NCLA litigation counsel Sheng Li added, “Persuading the public to voluntarily adopt such apps may be difficult, but it is also necessary in a free society. The government may not secretly install surveillance devices on your personal property without a warrant—even for a laudable purpose. For the same reason, it may not install surveillance software on your smartphone without your awareness and permission.”


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