Fact check: Under TRACE Act, cellphones will not be updated with ‘COVID-19 traceability'

The claim: As part of the TRACE Act, cellphones are being updated with "Covid-19 traceability” apps

The TRACE Act stirred controversy on social media and brought forth privacy concerns, as social media users claimed that phones would be updated with traceability apps – without anyone knowing – to track the spread of COVID-19.

A Facebook post with an image that states "Know what HR 6666 means for our country" includes a section that states: “Cellphones are being updated with ‘Covid-19 Traceability’ apps without us even knowing it. (See in comments to shut off this setting).” It adds, “This app will track where you’ve been, who you’ve been in contact with, and random strangers your phone has been 6 ft away from.”

Users in the comments on the post claimed that the traceability app could be turned off on cellphones in the settings section by selecting the Health button and turning off “COVID-19 Exposure Notifications.”

This post is one of several claims that followed the announcement of House Resolution 6666, the TRACE Act: Testing, Reaching and Contacting Everyone that is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush. D-Ill., on May 1.

What is the purpose of H.R. 6666?

The TRACE Act includes a $100 billion grant that will be used to allocate money to nonprofit organizations, health centers, medical facilities, and more, to implement testing units and hire staff in hotspot areas to track and reduce COVID-19 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already issued guidance stating contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing COVID-19.

“Communities must scale up and train a large contact tracer workforce and work collaboratively across public and private agencies to stop the transmission of COVID-19,” the website reads.

The bill also would use funds to purchase personal protective equipment and hire, train and compensate individuals' expenses.

Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush of Illinois and Karen Bass of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, urged their colleagues to support an antilynching bill Feb. 26 named after Emmett Till.

Priority would be given to “applicants that agree, in hiring individuals to carry out activities funded under this section, to hire residents of the area or community where the activities will primarily occur, with higher priority among applicants described in this paragraph given based on the percentage of individuals to be hire from such area or community.”

There is no mention in the text of the bill that cellphone apps will be used to track coronavirus or exposure to it.

Another part of the bill reads: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to supersede any Federal privacy of confidentiality requirement.”

Rush has also emphasized on Twitter that privacy will not be violated, including regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — known as HIPAA — and the Public Health Service Act.

(FILES) In this combo file photo taken on May 17, 2014, shows Google's logo (top) in New York on May 21, 2012, and Apple's logo in Paris on January 27, 2010. - Google and Apple unveiled a joint initiative on April 10, 2020, to use smartphones to trace coronavirus contacts to battle the pandemic. The move brings together the largest mobile operating systems in an effort to use smartphone technology to track and potentially contain the global pandemic. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND and Loic VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND,LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1QJ15H

Apple and Google partner for COVID-19 tracing apps

Google and Apple announced April 1 a joint effort to develop technical tools and use Bluetooth technology to help the government and health agencies reduce the spread of COVID-19 with privacy and security measures still in place.

“Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing,” a news release from Apple reads. “Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.”

Their plan states that both Google and Apple will release APIs that will cooperate with Android and iOS devices and will use apps from public health authorities. The apps are not required and will be available for download via app stores.

A Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform, to which individuals would opt in, would allow more users to participate. 

Fact check: What's true and what's false about coronavirus?

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that cellphones will be updated with COVID-19 tracing apps under the TRACE Act or other initiatives as FALSE because it was not supported by our research. Nothing in the bill mentions that apps and cellphones will be used to trace the coronavirus. Rep. Bobby Rush, the bill's sponsor, has stated that nothing in the bill supersedes federal privacy requirements. While companies like Google and Apple have introduced plans to create apps, it is noted that apps would be for voluntary use and individuals would decide if they want to opt in or out.

Our fact-check sources:

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