Imagine your cellphone contacting all the cellphones in your near vicinity, without your knowledge. Actually this happens all the time. The Bluetooth chips in our cellphones constantly send out query signals for other Bluetooth-enabled devices. This is how a cellphone pairs with ear buds, or with a car’s entertainment system, or with another cellphone.
If your phone doesn’t recognize a cellphone that it’s queried, it quickly deletes that phone from its memory. No one is the wiser, and everyone’s privacy is preserved.
But this may soon change. Companies such as Apple, Google, and MIT are developing technology that will cause our cellphones to remember all the nearby phones they’ve queried. This is similar to technology currently being used in Asia.
The purpose is contact tracing. Contact tracing is a tool the CDC wants to use, to combat the coronavirus. When someone tests positive, their cellphone will be examined to determine which cellphones that person has come near, over the prior 14 days. Then all the owners of those cellphones will be called and informed that they have recently been near someone who has been diagnosed with the virus. They will be advised, or perhaps ordered, to be tested, self-isolate, or take some other action.
The technology to do this kind of contact tracing could be rolled out in mid-May, with widespread implementation this summer. Apple and Google are working together on a way to embed the tracing software into their operating systems, so that downloading an app won’t be necessary. But MIT’s brainchild would require the download of an app called PrivateKit.
So far, authorities are saying that participation in Bluetooth contact tracing will be voluntary. However in order for it to work effectively, most of the population will have to opt-in. Thus, it’s possible that it could become mandatory. But they assure us that all data will be anonymized through special encryption codes.
Hacking, through deanonymizing techniques, is always a risk with this kind of dataveillance. In spite of the best efforts by developers, our privacy could still be compromised.
If you don’t mind the risk, and want to opt-in, you must make sure you have enabled Bluetooth on your smartphone. It’s normally enabled by default, but there’s a chance it could have been turned off. It’s easy to turn it back on. The way I do this on my Android phone is to press the “Settings” icon (it looks like a gear).
Settings takes me to a menu. One of the items on the menu is “Connected devices.” This takes me to a new menu, with “Bluetooth” at the top. It may say “Connected” or “Not connected.” Just because it says “Not connected”, it doesn’t mean it can’t query other phones. A nearby switch determines if Bluetooth is activated and can do queries.
If the switch is moved left, Bluetooth will be deactivated and a message will say something like “Not visible to other devices.” Moving the switch to the right will activate it.
A few weeks ago I got experimental and decided to deactivate Bluetooth. And then I decided to turn off Location services on all my apps. To do this, I went to Settings again, and then selected “Apps & notifications”. I then selected “App info”. This allowed me to select each app on my phone and, one-by-one, disable permission to track my location.
While I was doing this, I noticed something called “Body sensors”. This seemed a little creepy to me, so I disabled all permissions I came across that apparently sense my body.
With Bluetooth, Location, and Body Sensors disabled, I wanted to see how well my cellphone would work. Well I’m happy to say that after two weeks of this ongoing experiment, everything has been working fine and dandy.
Every day I receive an onslaught of robocalls, as usual, so at least this tells me that my phone can still receive calls. Also, I went hiking where the lockdown police wouldn’t catch me, and way out in the middle of nowhere I tried calling my house. It worked like a charm. So I can also make outgoing calls.
But I can’t use Google Maps unless I activate Location permissions for that particular app. That’s fine, I hardly ever use that app anyway. And I can always turn Location back off, after I finish with the app.
Another thing, my phone doesn’t automatically pair with my car’s entertainment system anymore. If I want it to pair I have to re-activate Bluetooth.
Also, I occasionally get a message from Google Play, begging me to activate Body Sensors. Eww, get your hands off me, Google Play. I just hit “Cancel” when I get this message, and so far nothing bad has happened.
When contact tracing is rolled out, I can easily opt-in by going back into Settings and activating Bluetooth. That’s a decision I’ll make when the time comes. I like the idea that this program will probably be voluntary. I find it refreshing that in a free country, we may still have some freedom left.
Here’s a short youtube video you might be interested in, that provides more details about the contact tracing system coming soon to our phones: