Human Rights House on COVID-19 Tracker Apps

Human Rights House Tbilisi, on behalf of its member organizations, responds to the development of an application that records the spread of COVID-19 virus in Georgia (so-called ‘COVID-tracker’ app). In the nearest future, gradual lifting of restrictive measures is planned in Georgia. When people will leave homes and return to their normal lifestyle, the app will be most likely used more actively. We believe, that the public, including human rights defenders and activists who often become the victims of state surveillance and persecution due to their activities, should be fully aware of the features of this application.

The world tries a variety of mechanisms to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19. Together with medical personnel, government agencies, and international institutions, modern technologies have an important role in combatting the pandemic. While having advantages, the use of technologies rises some risks as well – in such cases, by having access to personal data of people, states might launch surveillance mechanisms via tracker apps that may compromise the right to privacy.

Various tracker apps have been developed in several countries all around the world: Smartphone app in Poland obliges people to upload so-called “selfies” when requested by the government agencies to confirm their exact location and prove they stay in quarantine. The South Korean app reports a possible threat to a person who has been in close distance with the person infected with coronavirus within the past two weeks. The app in the UK monitors how people follow self-isolation requirements – the government collects data to observe community movement and gathering trends.

Most common apps use Bluetooth and GPS technologies to detect the smartphone location and provide the user with information about being in contact with the person infected with the virus. Google and Apple announced to develop an exactly such app with common efforts.

Georgia uses the application developed by the Austrian company “NOVID20” and Dolphin Technologies. From the day of its announcement, it was highlighted that this is a voluntary app requiring the consent of the person infected with the virus.

According to the legislation of Georgia, personal data is any information connected to an identified or identifiable natural person. Information connected to a person’s state of health is data of a special category. Information on the website of the Ministry of Health notes that the application uses Bluetooth and GPS and defines social contacts among the users of the app anonymously, in case they have been in contact with an infected person for a certain duration and distance. Accordingly, the app gets access to the users’ identifying information, their location, Bluetooth, and so-called contacts (contacts to those who have installed this app).

Even the perfect app system can’t guarantee absolute security. Currently, the protection mechanism for the information obtained by the app is available, however, the app still has the access to personal information and the ways to ‘break’ the app and spread the protected data will always exist. Thus, in the fight against the pandemic of such magnitude, it is especially important to strictly scrutinize the additional surveillance mechanism given to the state and protect that it will be in line with human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Human Rights House member organizations consider it necessary for the state to pay attention and strictly control the possible danger of disclosing personal information provided to the app and/or avoid the risk of using this data inappropriately by the state in the future. It is also important that the people infected with the pandemic do not become the victims of stigma.

Considering the current circumstances, we consider the state has an obligation to:

  • Ensure the anonymity of the application users.
  • Ensure that the application provides the person with complete information about the risks and dangers of its use.
  • Ensure the application is available in the native languages of ethnic minorities living in Georgia.
  • Ensure it is voluntary to use the application and the person has the possibility to refuse to provide information at any stage of using the app.
  • Protect the data on which the application has access and ensure the security of all devices providing information to the app.
  • Monitor the application requires access only to the information necessary for its functioning.
  • Ensure the intentional use of the information provided to the app – to protect health and to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
  • Ensure the information shared by the person to the application is not stored permanently and the access to the data is limited in time.
  • Provide users with comprehensive and clear information about the application updates. When updating the app, the vast majority of the users do not pay attention to the changes caused by the transition to a new version, and, in this process, they may agree to share the information that they don’t want to be shared.

Member organizations of the Human Rights House Tbilisi:

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