Following in the footsteps of China, Israel, Armenia, and Russia; Qatar has now resorted to a coronavirus tracking app to contain the virus though it is at the cost of its residents’ privacy rights. “All citizens and residents are obliged to install the Ehteraz app on smartphones when leaving the house for any reason” tweeted the state-run Qatar News Agency on May 18, notifying that “this decision is effective from Friday 22/5/2020 until further notice.”
Qatar’s lockdown measures include limiting the number of people in vehicles to two (three for exceptional cases) and closing all non-essential shops. Anyone failing to comply with these rules can be imprisoned up to three years and face a fine of 200,000 riyals (54,800 USD). As of May 21st, Qatar has 38,651 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 17 deaths.
The Ehteraz app, designed to notify users if they have been in close contact with anyone exposed to COVID-19 using GPS and Bluetooth technology, was introduced in early April with its installment initially being optional. Now that the app is mandatory, with it comes a long list of access requests to considerably private data.
Aside from location data, the app requires permission to access the users’ photos/media/files/storage (allows modification or deletion of the contents of users’ USB storage), device ID and call information, internet data, and a full network of connections to name a few. One user commented on Google Play, “Why this app wants to access my photos and media and phone? I am accepting the location only. It’s not working unless I will accept everything and this is not logical for me. So I will not use it unless it will be respecting my privacy.”
In a Q&A published by Human Rights Watch last week, the organization raised concerns over the human rights implications of governments and the private sector relying heavily on apps to track and contain the virus. Whilst acknowledging the benefits of technological solutions for tracking the spread of the virus, contact tracing, quarantine enforcement, and medical resource allocation; the organization warned that such apps and data collection can “introduce unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance measures in public health disguise,” where the erosion of privacy can lead to the enhancement of repression.
Two main concerns are contesting the legitimacy of these tracking apps – aside from the obvious unease and privacy concerns that come with the scenarios of surveillance creep. First, the technology of most of these apps is unproven and untested as to whether they fulfill their function or if they are more efficient than manual contact tracing. Cindy Cohn, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy group, argued that GPS data is not accurate enough and that Bluetooth signals can cut through walls and doors, weakening the anticipated use of the app.
Second, such surveillance measures implemented in times of crisis in the past have demonstrated to extend their stay and their initially intended use. The 2001 Patriot Act implemented in the U.S. originally as a response to security concerns post-9/11 is a prime example of this, as this act, which gave the government broad surveillance powers with little regulation, is still around to this day, collecting millions of Americans’ metadata. Opponents would argue that the government leveraged public fears to expand its power and control.
Going one step further, Cohn expressed worries in Big Tech companies monetizing this collected and preserved data, saying, “It gives a lot of opportunity for people to profiteer, for people to take advantage of the crisis to do things that are not necessarily in the public interest.”
It is safe to say that these concerns arise from and are symptoms of repeatedly undermined public trust in figures and institutions of authority, but technology does not have to bring about a dystopian world. It can be utilized to serve the public interest and improve the livelihoods of those who do not have access to adequate opportunities.
For this, human rights standards should be applied when resorting to such technologies. Joshua Geltzer, a past senior director for counterterrorism in the Obama White House, pointed out that we must follow the lead of scientists and implement only surveillance technologies that would be effective. The reach of these apps should be regulated by constant governmental oversight with precise transparency, and such surveillance powers must only be temporary measures until the pandemic is under control.
Additionally, leading by example, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis launched the app “Hunala,” which is a virus tracking app that is anonymized, keeping the users’ privacy is protected. As for Qatar, unfortunately, they have no choice but to install the Ehteraz app for now, unless they never leave their house or are ready to face hefty fines and imprisonment.