Two men who own Android devices are suing the Massachusetts Department of Health on behalf of millions of residents, accusing the agency of installing COVID-19 tracking software on their phones without permission.
In a 35-page lawsuit filed this week in federal court, Robert Wright and Johnny Kula allege the state worked with Google to develop COVID-19 tracking software, but when it couldn’t get enough volunteers to run it willing to download it to their phones, it secretly installed it on the phones of Android users who live or work in the state.
According to court records, they claim the app would not appear on a user’s home screen, but could only be located by going to the settings. If a user tried to delete the app, it would reappear.
About two dozen states have developed COVID-19 contact tracing software with Google, but they have their residents voluntarily download it to their phones.
“These other states engage in community outreach and have encouraged their residents to voluntarily download the apps and opt-in to contact tracing. However, Massachusetts is the only state that secretly embeds the contact tracing app on mobile devices,” the complaint reads.
“These secret installations not only invade the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy, but they also violate the property rights in their mobile device,” Mr. Wright and Mr. Kula claimed.
The men, represented by lawyer Sheng Li of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, are asking the court to stop the state from loading the app onto residents’ phones without their consent.
“The government cannot secretly install surveillance devices on your personal property without a warrant – even for a laudable purpose. For the same reason, it cannot install surveillance software on your smartphone without your knowledge and permission,” he said. Mr. Li told The Washington Times that he is not aware of similar trials in other states because those states allow residents to voluntarily download the tracking apps.
But he noted that Google has faced lawsuits over its COVID-19 contact tracing apps for revealing private individuals’ private health information.
Google settled a case over the claims in California last month.
A spokesperson for the tech giant did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said the agency does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, an appointee of former President Obama, is overseeing the case, which was filed Monday in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts.