Some iPhone owners refuse iOS 13.7 update over fear of COVID-19 contact tracing

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iOS 13.7 contact tracing feature: Life-saver, or NSA spy tool?
Life-saver, or new NSA spy tool?
Photo: Lewis Wallace/Cult of Mac

Some iPhone owners are refusing to install Apple’s latest software update for fear of being tracked. iOS 13.7, which Apple released Tuesday, makes COVID-19 contact tracing easier for government health agencies to implement — but some people claim its true purpose is more sinister.

“Another step towards a totally surveillanced state,” said one iPhone user on Twitter — and many others continue to voice similar complaints and fears.

A proven method for tamping down outbreaks of contagious diseases, contact tracing traditionally takes place “manually.” Governments and health agencies hire armies of workers to interview sick people, attempting to nail down where the patients have traveled and who they might have inadvertently exposed to the contagion in question.

In the smartphone era, tech companies are trying to take contact tracing digital. The Exposure Notifications feature in iOS is powered by an API developed jointly by Apple and Google. Using anonymous digital tokens, the system can alert smartphone owners that they have come into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s entirely opt-in, and it has the potential to save lives and slow the pandemic’s spread as regions emerge from lockdown. However, a small but vocal number of iPhone users seem hell-bent on overlooking the benefits of contact tracing. Instead, they see it as just another way for Apple and the government to keep tabs on us.

Here comes Big Brother

“This is a DANGEROUS precedent!” blasted @clydetwopointoh. “Including a tracking device WITHOUT letting phone users know AND give them the ability to disable it is another step towards ‘1984’!”

Of course, in reality, Apple made it clear that its contact-tracing feature is baked into iOS 13.7 and the iOS 14 update coming this fall. Apple also disables the feature by default. Users must opt in to take part.

Plus, Apple employs some of the strictest privacy policies in the technology industry. And yet, the angry loonies seem convinced that contact tracing is nothing more than a new government spy tool.

The NSA is at it again!

“Exposure tracking is a NSA spyware,” claimed one commenter on 9to5Mac’s story about the iOS 13.7 release.

“No thanks Big Brother,” said @MaroneyMoultrie in response to CNN’s tweet.

“Not with a ten foot pole,” wrote another on the MacRumors forum. “Downloading iOS versions with this tracking is agreeing to tyranny … A location tracking device, audio and text spying, social control and modification — are you getting it yet?”

Believe it or not, digging deeper only uncovers more outlandish claims about Apple’s (and the NSA’s?) true intentions. While some people attempt to defend the feature and politely explain how Exposure Notifications work, a small but outspoken few remain uninterested in reason.

“So Apple admits they’re going to track you whether you want to be tracked or not?” asked @Area407Guy. “Would not dare download it on any platform,” added @Pro20Socialist. “They all spy on you, and this one more than ever before. Don’t download it.”

“Who the hell wants the government tracking your every move?” asked @erikgarcia350. “That is right out of the Power Tripping Democrats Playbook!! No thanks!”

“Wow talk about invasion of privacy,” wrote @BurmCast.

The truth about contact tracing in iOS 13.7

It should be noted that the majority of iPhone users seem to be welcoming COVID-19 contact tracing. They understand its importance, and see that it has the potential to save lives.

Clearly, others are very misinformed. So, what is the truth about contact tracing on iPhone? Well, it’s certainly not going to get you locked up for selling weed, or send your browsing habits to your mom.

Instead, digital contact tracing is designed to alert iPhone (and Android) users when they come into contact with someone who reports having tested positive for COVID-19. That offers real benefits to you and your friends and family.

As per usual, knowledge is power. If you know you came in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, you know there is a chance you might be infected, too. You can get yourself tested and take steps to ensure that you avoid passing the disease on to others.

As mentioned, you must opt in to take advantage of Exposure Notifications. And right now, the feature only works in a handful of countries. Still, the iOS 13.7 update potentially makes digital contact tracing more viable. While Apple first introduced Exposure Notifications in iOS 13.5, the initial implementation required the use of a third-party app developed by a government health agency. Very few organizations built their own apps to work with the Exposure Notifications API.

In iOS 13.7, Apple introduced Exposure Notifications Express. This second phase of the contact-tracing rollout makes it easier for health agencies to get on board. Now, they no longer need to develop their own standalone contact-tracing app. And users no longer need to download a separate app to participate in contact tracing.

iOS 13.7 is safe: How to enable contact tracing

Despite the obvious personal and societal benefits of contact tracing, the Exposure Notifications feature remains disabled by default in iOS 13.7 (and the iOS 14 betas). You must go into the Settings app, then tap Exposure Notifications, and then enable the feature manually by tapping Turn On Exposure Notifications. Otherwise it does nothing.

If you do sign up, and a health agency in your area supports Exposure Notifications Express (or operates its own contact-tracing app), your iPhone collects and shares anonymized identifiers as you come into Bluetooth range of other smartphones. These tokens are generated cryptographically on your device, and they change every 24 hours.

There’s no way for anyone to link that identifier to you. The random IDs cannot reveal your name, age, location, favorite food — or any other personal information. Like a lot of Apple’s services, COVID-19 contact tracing was designed around strict privacy policies.

So, there you have it — there’s no need to avoid Apple’s latest software updates. And if you can, you should really take advantage of contact tracing. You might just save a life. Just don’t be a loony.