Attorneys general in DC, Md. and Va. try to stem COVID-19 tracing app ripoff

An important aspect of trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing — working backward to determine who people infected with the coronavirus have been around, and where they’ve been.

However, local attorneys general are concerned a tool that helps facilitate contract tracing can put your personal information at risk.

“Contact tracing apps can be extremely protective of your health, and other people’s health, but make sure they’re from a trusted source,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

He, and his counterparts from Virginia and the District of Columbia, are among the AGs who sent letters to the CEOs of Apple and Google, asking they ensure contact tracing and exposure notification tools be affiliated with a local, state, or federal public health authority.

“Folks who are running the apps that you’re downloading are getting all kinds of information about you that you assume is going to remain private,” said Frosh. “Where you are, who you’re talking to, what you’re doing.”

While the information is valuable to legitimate public health authorities, including hospitals and universities providing data to the public health effort, unverified apps — many of them free — are only interested in learning and profiting from your private information.

“You are the product,” warned Frosh. “That’s what they’re selling.”

In the letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the attorneys general said while digital tracing is valuable, “such technology also poses a risk to consumers’ personally identifiable information, including sensitive health information, that could continue long after the present public health emergency ends.”

In addition to verifying that the tracing apps are linked with a legitimate public health authority, the letter requests COVID-19 tracing apps be removed from the App Store and Google Play “once the COVID-19 national emergency ends.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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