Concerns arise as the seemingly robust Covid-19 contact-tracing apps developed by unlikely allies, Apple and Google, may have harbored privacy flaws. A recent report has shed light on critical vulnerabilities, particularly in the Android version of the contact-tracing app.
The Unified Framework: Apple and Google’s Attempt at Reassurance
In an unexpected collaboration, Apple and Google sought to alleviate privacy concerns surrounding their contact-tracing APIs. The promises were grand – the technology wouldn’t be exploitable for tracking user locations or fueling targeted advertising.
How Does the Software Work?
To identify exposure to Covid-19, the framework relies on “rolling proximity identifiers,” Bluetooth-enabled identity pings that change every 15 minutes, enhancing user anonymity. The collected information stays local, residing neither in the cloud nor on a physical server.
Adopted nationally by governments, including the UK, Canada, and various U.S. states, the framework caters to tens of millions of users.
Unmasking the Flaw: Android’s Achilles Heel
The security glitch, primarily affecting the Android version of the contact-tracing app, was unearthed by AppCensus, a privacy analysis company. The flaw involves Bluetooth identifiers sharing sensitive information with system-level applications.
What is the Security Flaw?
AppCensus, contracted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, discovered that pre-installed apps like Samsung Browser and Motorola MotoCare gained access to contact-tracing information stored in system logs. Up to 400 pre-installed apps from major companies retained the ability to read these logs, potentially exposing critical Covid-19-related data.
System logs, including personally identifiable information, such as device names and MAC addresses, were susceptible to these pre-installed apps. While the apps theoretically could have sent this data to their parent companies, there’s no evidence indicating that it happened.
Google and Apple’s Response: A Delayed Reaction
AppCensus informed Google of the flaw on February 19 through their bug bounty program. However, Google only acknowledged the issue almost a month later, downplaying its significance and initially denying a bug bounty payout.
Action was taken only after media outlets contacted Google for verification of AppCensus’s findings. Google admitted that Bluetooth identifiers were temporarily accessible to specific system-level applications for debugging purposes and promptly initiated a fix.
In the aftermath, the question remains: How secure is your contact-tracing app? Feel free to share your concerns in the comments.
- Q: What is the primary flaw in the contact-tracing app? A: The Android version of the app had a security glitch, allowing pre-installed apps to access sensitive information stored in system logs.
- Q: Were user locations at risk? A: The framework used “rolling proximity identifiers” to prevent user location tracking, but the security flaw in the Android version compromised this safeguard.
- Q: How did Google respond to the reported flaw? A: Google initially downplayed the issue but took action only after media outreach, fixing the problem and acknowledging temporary accessibility of Bluetooth identifiers.
- Q: Were there any consequences for the affected users? A: While there’s no evidence of data misuse, the flaw potentially exposed users to having their Covid-19-related data accessed by pre-installed apps.
- Q: Is my contact-tracing app secure? A: The security flaw primarily affected the Android version, but with the fix initiated by Google, users are advised to update their apps for enhanced security.
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