Lawsuit Claims Massachusetts Secretly Tracking Phones With COVID Spyware

A new class action lawsuit has been filed against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) claiming the state agency is using technology produced by Google to spy on more than one million Android smartphones. DPH is allegedly using tracking apps as part of a program to slow the spread of COVID-19 using contract tracing.

The case was filed Tuesday by the nonpartisan public interest law firm New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) and claims DPH has shown a “brazen disregard for civil liberties” by secretly and unilaterally installing “spyware that deliberately tracks and records movement and personal contacts onto over a million mobile devices without their owners’ permission and awareness.”

The complaint in the case argues that DPH has acted in willful violation of the U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions.

The lawsuit claims that DPH has conspired with Google to “hijack residents’ smartphones without the owners’ knowledge or consent” and the plan is not a lawful means to combat COVID-19, regardless of how laudable that goal may be.

NCLA claims that DPH worked alongside Google to develop a contract tracing software app that was made available in April 2021 to Bay State residents who chose to download the program voluntarily. The complaint alleges that very few people chose to download the app when given the choice to do so.

Then in June 2021, DPH and Google took steps to secretly install the app on more than one million Android mobile devices in Massachusetts, according to the lawsuit. Users were allegedly not made aware the program had been placed on their devices. In fact, when some users discovered and deleted the software, the state acted to re-install it without permission or notice.

NCLA alleges that the app works to continuously connect with other nearby devices using Bluetooth connectivity. It exchanges data and creates a record of the connections it makes. The records that are then stored act as time-stamped markers of data contained in mobile devices that are available to DPH, Google, and third-party developers.

The data stored and secretly shared can include phone contact information and personal emails, according to the complaint. Information about users’ “contacts, locations, and movement” is also secretly collected.

The lawsuit says that more than two dozen other states developed and encouraged the use of similar software, but always made participation and downloading voluntary. Massachusetts is alleged to be the only state in the nation that secretly embedded the contract tracing app on private devices.

Perhaps the case will be an opportunity for the public to become more aware of the government overreach and abuses that have gone under the radar in the name of fighting the pandemic.