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Google’s virus-tracing apps can allow it to track some users’ locations.

When Google and Apple announced plans in April for free software to help alert people of their possible exposure to the coronavirus, the companies promoted it as “privacy preserving” and said it would not track users’ locations. Encouraged by those guarantees, Germany, Switzerland and other countries used the code to develop national virus alert apps that have been downloaded more than 20 million times.

But for the apps to work on smartphones with Google’s Android operating system — the most popular in the world — users must first turn on the device location setting, which enables GPS and may allow Google to determine their locations.

Some government officials seemed surprised that the company could detect Android users’ locations. After learning about it, Cecilie Lumbye Thorup, a spokeswoman for Denmark’s Health Ministry, said her agency intended to “start a dialogue with Google about how they in general use location data.”

Switzerland said it had pushed Google for weeks to alter the location setting requirement.

Google’s location requirement adds to the slew of privacy and security concerns with virus-tracing apps, many of which were developed by governments before the new Apple-Google software became available. Government officials and epidemiologists say the apps can be a helpful complement to public health efforts to stem the pandemic. But human rights groups and technologists have warned that aggressive data collection and security flaws in many apps put hundreds of millions of people at risk for stalking, scams, identity theft or oppressive government tracking.


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