woman face mask phone

Corona Apps: This is how Countries are Dealing with Privacy (in Times of Covid-19)

Last edited: May 4, 2020
Reading time: 59 minutes, 33 seconds

Governments around the world are looking for a way to get control over the Covid-19 outbreak. Many countries have decided that they want to make use of technology and apps in combatting this virus. Some are already developing such apps or have even implemented them already. This article will discuss what these countries have done in their battle against the coronavirus. How do some of the apps work and what concerns do we have about them? It will also look at the options available when developing a tracking app. We have also talked to several security and privacy experts about the risks involved.

International Experiences  

All around the world governments rely on apps to fight the coronavirus. In this section we will discuss what apps they use, how they work, and how they have been experienced. The most important findings have been summarized in the interactive image and table below. A more detailed analysis for all countries can be found further down.

Country Tracking Technique Details
Germany Smartband or smartwatch combined with an app The smartband registers data such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and sleeping pattern, so that it can recognize corona symptoms. This information is forwarded to the Robert Koch institute by the app, which is a similar institute to the CDC in the US. It relies on voluntary participation. Thus far overall participation in the country is low.
Belgium Bluetooth application An app that registers movement of people will be launched soon. It will register where you go, when you go there, and who you were in contact with. The government wants to use the app to map infections and to notify people who have been in contact with someone infected by the virus.
Switzerland Analysis mobile data phone provider The Swiss government has gained access to data for analysis saved by one of the main phone providers in the country. The government wants to map people’s movement to determine how to slow down the spread of the virus.
The United Kingdom Bluetooth application The UK government is planning to launch a contact tracing app within the next couple of weeks. It will notify people who have been in contact with someone infected with the virus. British media say that the app will make use of Bluetooth and possibly GPS as well.
Ireland Bluetooth application The Irish government will launch an app soon. It will notify people who have been in contact with someone infected with the virus. Participation will be voluntary.
Iceland Application based on GPS Participants will voluntarily download an app. It will register their location via GPS and that data will be stored locally on a user’s phone. When a participant gets infected they will register that information in the app. A governmental Contact Tracing Team will then analyze that person’s movements and map possible infections.
Denmark No Apps, only lockdown Denmark did not invest in developing or using an app, but decided to implement a strict lockdown. The spread of the virus seems to be under control in the country, so the lockdown measures will be relaxed mid-April. For example, schools will open again.
Italy No contact tracing app, but an app to keep in contact with medical professionals People can voluntarily register their symptoms in an app and can get in touch with medical professionals. The spread of the virus can be mapped based on the information that people feed into the app. This way the authorities can intervene when necessary. People can also make a call to the emergency services in the app.
Spain Various apps, plus tracking 40 million Spanish Phones Spain has developed, or is developing, several apps through which data about people’s health is collected. People register their symptoms and these are connected to their location data. The government has stated that they are not monitoring the Spanish people to see whether they adhere to the measures taken, but to map the spread of the virus. The government is also tracking over 40 million smartphones for a Covid-19 study. People’s movements are registered via GPS so that inter-regional measures can be fine-tuned. The government stated that all data has been anonymized.
France Bluetooth application for locating and aps to stay in touch with medical professionals France wants to fight the pandemic with an app that is still in development. Precise details about what the app will do are not available yet. Authorities have stated that they app will make use of Bluetooth. But there are concerns about flaws in the app. The secretary of Digital Affairs has therefore said that they might decide to not launch the app after all. Privacy will be the main issue in developing the app and the French authorities will keep a watchful eye on that. Other than that, the government is encouraging people to download apps that offer basic medical advice.
Austria Bluetooth application This app connects to other phones via Bluetooth. This will happen when two users spend over 15 minutes with each other being less than 6 feet apart. When a person gets infected with the virus he can notify anyone he has been in contact with over the last 54 hours. The app will notify anyone that has made a connection with the phone via Bluetooth. The app needs access to your phone’s microphone to send out ultrasonic sounds to determine the distance between devices.
Poland Self-quarantine app based on selfies This app does not use Bluetooth or GPS, but selfies. The concept is that people need to prove that they are staying at home by sending selfies to the department of Digital Affairs. The app uses facial recognition software to determine whether the person really is who he claims to be. The app also locates where the photo was taken. Participants need to send in a selfie several times a day. The app will send out selfie requests at random and when a photo isn’t taken within 20 minutes police will be notified.
Russia App that serves as digital locator and also a QR system The Kremlin launched an app to track people who have been told to stay at home. So the app functions as a locator to track whether the person is following the instructions given. If not, the authorities can step in. The Russian government is also working on a system using QR-codes. All inhabitants of Moscow who have registered online are given a QR code. This can be used to identify themselves when going out on the street. Authorities can then check whether this person is allowed to be out.
Turkey Tracking mobile phones President Erdogan wants to track all movement of people in the country by tracking mobile phones. The department of Communication stated that they want to send out messages or call people who leave their house. Turks who don’t adhere to self-quarantine restrictions will be visited by the police and receive a fine. Specific plans for the development of such an app have not been released yet.
The United States No apps, but data collection through mobile phones The CDC collects location data via mobile phones. This information is then used to track people’s movements. Google, Apple, and Facebook are all working on ways to map the spread of the virus in the US (and outside the country) as well.
China Contact tracing apps, GPS hacking, facial recognition, and more China is monitoring people’s movements in various ways. The Chinese people can be made to download certain apps. Functions are incorporated into existing apps (like Alipay and WeChat) to track people as well. Their rights and freedoms can be taken away based on their quarantine status.
Singapore Bluetooth application Singapore uses an app that registers contact via Bluetooth. This data is encrypted and saved locally for 21 days. Everybody who has the app and has been in contact with a person who gets infected will be notified.
South Korea GPS tracking, security cameras, credit card information, check-points in public spaces South-Korea has opened dozens of testing locations where people can get tested for free. When someone tests positive, GPS data, credit card details, and security footage are used to trace someone’s steps and to notify the people they have been in contact with. Personal details about the infected person are shared in this process.
India Self-quarantine app using selfies This app requests people to send in a selfie at home several times a day. This is used to check whether a person is actually staying at home. If not, then the person will be contacted by the authorities.
Taiwan GPS and smartphone tracking Authorities are notified when someone who is supposed to be in quarantine leaves their house. For this, the government uses mobile phone tracking data. When someone’s phone dies or is switched off they can also count on a visit from the police.
Hong Kong Wristbands and an app In Hong-Kong, people are given wristbands that are connected to an app. These wristbands are used to make sure that people stay at home and don’t break quarantine.
Australia Various apps using GPS and mobile data Local governments have launched various apps in Australia. One of these apps is Whispir in Victoria. This app allows the government to track the location of Covid-19 patients. The authorities can also use the app to communicate with a person via text-message. The app helps to make sure that people are self-quarantining. People who don’t risk a fine of $25,000. A fine for a company can go up to $100,000.
Update 27 April: The Australian government has launched its own contact-tracing app called COVIDSafe. This app is based on TraceTogether from Singapore and uses Bluetooth to register contacts. The data will be stored locally on the user’s phone for 21 days.
New Zealand No app yet, but is developing a contact tracing app An app is in development which will be able to map contact. It is not certain whether the government is actually going to use this app. The government has also stated to be interested in the app used in Singapore.
Israel Location app and smartphone analysis for infected individuals People will be notified when they have been in contact with an infected person in the last 14 days. They will receive time and location data about that contact, but they will not be told any personal details. They will then be notified that they have to self-quarantine. The government promised that the app does not share location data with the Health department. The Israelian secret service can analyze your phone when you get infected so that they can find out who you have been in contact with. Those people can then be quarantined as well.
Iran App that locates using GPS A message was sent to all Iranian citizens on March 3 2020 to tell them that they had to download an app before going to a hospital or health center. The name of this app is AC19. It monitors location to determine where a user is. It also uses an Android library to track movement, which is normally used by fitness apps. A tweet by ICT secretary MJ Azari Jahromi stated that more than 3.5 million people had already shared private and location data with the government.
Pakistan Tracing mobile phones Several Pakistani citizens received a message on March 24 stating that they had potentially been in contact with a Covid-19 patient. This measure was most likely implemented via cell site location information (CSLI) and call detail record (CDR) data collection methods. Details about locations visited by a confirmed patient, and mobile phone numbers of people who were there at the same time, can be obtained from the patient’s phone records through CDS analysis.
Argentina Analyzing location data collected by third parties Big data company Grandata created a heatmap to show which areas in Argentina are conforming best to the quarantine measures. Grandata used an anonymized dataset that was collected by apps that provide geolocation data to third parties. The map shows whether a person is more than a yard away from the place he spends most of his time. This does not take the social economic context into consideration. Some people might have to travel miles to get to the nearest place to buy food or find essential services. This is also a perfect example of what the data-exploitation industry does. Users might not know where they have shared personal information and how it is shared with third parties.
Ecuador Satellite tracing/GPS tracking The government is planning to use satellite tracing to make sure that people adhere to quarantine measures. Privacy International says that with this measure they can make sure that people actually stay at home.
Brazil Smartphone tracking Some local governments are already tracking smartphones to check whether Brazilians are adhering to the lockdown. All over Brazil, governments are planning to implement a system that uses geolocation tracking to ensure that the lockdown is taken seriously. The system was developed by InLoco, a Brazilian startup. It geotracks people via a map that does not use GPS or beacons. InLoco claims that geotracking is 30 times more accurate than tracking via GPS.
Morocco Apps for information exchange The Moroccan government uses two apps to battle Covid-19. The first was developed by a startup named Dakibot. The company set up a chatbot that answers FAQs concerning the coronavirus. The other app was launched by the department of Health. It is aimed at medical professionals and can be used to exchange information in a fast and simple way. The government hopes that this helps people to be more effective in battling the coronavirus.
South Africa Analysis of telecom data South-African Communication secretary Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told reporters on March 24 that it is important to look at individuals that have been affected by the virus, so that we can help healthcare professionals. That is the only way to know how many people have been infected in a certain area. The telecommunication industry has agreed to analyze user data to help the government achieve this. It is not clear in what way this will happen exactly.

Apps in Europe

world map europe and russia

Germany

Germany is one of the countries where the coronavirus has hit hard. There have been over 115,000 infections and over 2,600 deaths. That is why the German government is doing everything to stop the spread of the virus. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German CDC, has developed an app named Corona-Datenspende to help reach that goal.

To use the app you need a smartphone and a smartband or smartwatch that can connect to Google Fit or Apple Health. Garmin, Fitbit, Polar, or Withings devices also work with the app. You need the wearable to detect symptoms at an early stage. There is no point in installing the app if you don’t have a smartband or smartwatch. After you have installed the app it will inform you about what data is collected and what the data is used for. If you decide to accept those conditions you will have to register your postcode. Finally, you will connect the app to your wearable.

All data collected is forwarded to the RKI. And they know quite a lot about you. They know your location since you’ve put in your postcode, but that is not all they know. The app developers have access to the information you have put in to your activity tracker. This is information such as sex, age, height, and weight. The data collected by your wearable will be forwarded to the RKI as well. This is information such as heart rate, stress level, body temperature, blood pressure, activity, rest, and sleeping pattern. The sensors in your smartband or smartwatch register changes in these variables. This is how these devices are able to recognize symptoms related to the coronavirus.

What about privacy? The developers straight out tell you that the information they collect is not anonymized. The app doesn’t register names and addresses, but it is linked with a specific user ID or pseudonym. The developers say that this is the only way to correctly analyze the data that has been collected over a longer period of time. The RKI does state that they are doing all that they can to protect the collected data and that they are taking full account of security measures that are in effect.

Users pay a high price when it comes to privacy. That might be the reason why the app has only been downloaded 50,000 times at the moment of writing.

Belgium

The Belgium government is trying to do all they can to fight the coronavirus. The country had decided to go into strict lockdown quite early on. Mayors in border cities were claiming that their neighboring country The Netherlands was taking the situation too lightly. That is way, as a precaution, Belgium closed their borders to the Dutch.

Belgium will soon launch an app that monitors movement. It will register where you go, when you go there, and who you were in contact with. The government wants to use the app to map infections and to notify people who have been in contact with someone infected by the virus. Virologist Marc van Ranst confirmed at the end of March that such an app will be available in the coming weeks. Belgium is part of a group named the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), together with Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. This group of researchers is developing a privacy friendly contact tracing app that uses Bluetooth.

Not everybody is sure this is a great idea though. Kati Verstrepen, chairperson for the Liga of Human rights, notes that an app like this can indeed be a valuable source of information for doctors and researchers. But they do need to be very careful with this data. She says that the key to success in this research is to respect people’s privacy. She demands transparency about who has access to the information and who saves the data. She also wants to see an advisory board put in place that can monitor the use of the app. And the data should be deleted once it turns out it is no longer relevant.

She said to Belgian media that the right to privacy is not an absolute right and in times of emergency there might be a need to limit these rights. But whenever a measure is taken, the government has to consider whether it is really necessary to reach their goal and whether that measure is in proportion to the issue at hand.

Switzerland

The Swiss government has asked the state run Swisscom to hand over mobile phone data, according to a report by Reuters. The government wants to use this data to determine whether the restrictions on people’s movement to slow the spread of the virus have actually worked.

Daniel Koch, who is the head of infectious diseases at the Federal department of Healthcare, said that it has “nothing to do with surveillance.” They only analyze data from the previous day. This statement stirred up some discussion amongst privacy advocates.

The United Kingdom

At the moment, about 62,000 people have been infected with the virus in the UK and about 7,100 people have died. Prince Charles was diagnosed with the virus at the end of March. He immediately self-isolated at his home in Scotland. His symptoms were mild, so he was back at work in no time. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized for a week after he was diagnosed with the virus. He was discharged on April 12. He has handed over his work to the secretary of Foreign Affairs, Dominic Raab, for the time that he needs to recover.

The UK is in lockdown. Johnson announced that they would be taking this measure in a simple and direct manner. “This evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home”. But this is not the only step that the Prime Minister is taking to stop the virus. The British government has plans to launch a contact tracing app in the next few weeks. This app will notify people when they have been in contact with someone who has been infected. British media claim that this app will make use of Bluetooth, and maybe GPS as well.

It is understood that privacy does not have priority. Sources that want to remain anonymous have told Sky News that during meetings no word was mentioned about “possible implications of the technology that they want to use.” Privacy advocates advised the government in an open letter to be weary. They asked that they don’t launch an app that is only used for social monitoring.

Ireland

The Irish government will launch an app soon, which will help battle the virus. The Health Service Executive (HSE), the Irish department of Health, announced at the end of March that the app would be available within ten days. The app is supposed to notify people when they have been in contact with someone who has been infected.

Very little is known about the way that the app functions. We know that it uses Bluetooth and that the Irish government is working closely together with privacy organizations. The government wants to prevent breaking any rules set by the GDPR. Nobody will be made to install the app, it will all be based on voluntary participation.

Iceland

Iceland is also putting their faith in an app to battle Covid-19. People can voluntarily download the app RakningC-19 on their smartphone. When you open the app the first time you will be asked to register your phone number. Participants will then receive a text message with a six number code. This will confirm their participation and their phone number will be saved on IT-company Sensa’s servers.

The next step, very importantly, asks whether the app is allowed to track someone’s location. To do this, the app does not use Bluetooth, but makes use of the GPS chip. If participants agree, it means that the app will constantly monitor their location. The app will save the location data several times per hour. This data is saved locally on the phone for 14 days. The information will automatically be deleted after two weeks.

When a participant finds out that they have been infected with the virus, they will register that information in the app. A Contact Tracing Team (CTT) at the department of Legal Protection and Emergency Services will then ask them to share their ID-number on their passport. This number will be saved in the Team’s database for 14 days. This means that location data of the patient is available to monitor and the CTT will be able to map other possible infections.

The company Sidekick has also developed an app. It functions very differently from RakningC-19. It does not collect any location data, but instead it offers a way for doctors and other healthcare professionals to communicate. This makes it possible for them to monitor someone’s health at a safe distance and take action when needed. If someone is self-isolating they are asked via text to install the app. This will make them part of the Sidekick Covid-19 program. They are asked to fill out a list of questions twice a day. An algorithm will then determine the severity of the symptoms using the information from the lists. A doctor will finally decide whether there is a need for them to intervene. The doctors can also use the app to ask a patient questions. A person is monitored by a healthcare professional so long as they don’t feel well. Once they feel better, they will be discharged and they can delete the app from their phone.

Covid-19 app iceland

Denmark

Denmark was one of the first European countries to introduce strong measures against the coronavirus. The country decided to close their borders, schools, restaurants and cafes, and prohibited meetings for more than ten people. Now, the Danish prime minister has stated that the measures will be slowly adjusted back to normal. Schools and daycares can reopen starting mid-April, while still keeping the set restrictions in mind (six feet distance, wash your hands, extra clean classrooms, no toys brought in from home, taking more breaks outside).

The measures taken in Denmark seem to have worked. There are 6,700 registered infections and almost 300 deaths. The Danish government has not taken the step to introduce an app in their fight against the virus.

Italy

Italy is one of the countries with the highest number of infected people. The Italian government is taking their battle against the virus quite far. Telecom providers are handing over data to them, which can be used to monitor people during the lockdown and see whether people are staying home. This sounds like a GDPR violation. The data is anonymized so that it doesn’t seem like an infringement of privacy. The collected data cannot be traced back to one specific person.

The Italian government has also put their hopes in an app to stop the spread of the virus. The app Lazio Doctor Covid can be downloaded in the Lazio region, where almost six million Italians live. The app is not a contact tracing app, but the application can be used to get in touch with healthcare professionals when you think you might be infected with the virus.

You are required to register your email address and phone number in the app. You can also register information about body temperature, weight, heart rate, and blood pressure. Questions will be asked about whether you have recently been abroad or whether you have been in contact with someone who has been infected by the virus. The app has an integrated diary which keeps track of the progression of symptoms. Using all of this information, a doctor will judge whether you have actually been infected with the Covid-19 virus and what steps a patient should take next. The app also includes a button with which you can contact emergency services.

People can participate voluntarily and the app has been downloaded over 50,000 times in the Google Play Store.

Spain

Spain is the country with the second highest number of infections and deaths, right behind the US. There are over 175,000 registered infections and almost 20,000 deathly victims. This is why, in March, the Spanish government introduced a strict lockdown in the country. All hotels and tourist accommodations were forced to shut down, schools were closed (all schools, from primary to universities), people were asked to work from home when they could, public transport was put to a halt, large events were cancelled, and people were asked to not leave their home other than for groceries, and travel to work or to hospital. This lockdown will be in place until at least the end of April.

Apps have been developed in Spain to combat the spread of the virus. Inhabitants of capital city Madrid can download CoronaMadrid, a tool that helps people determine whether they might be infected with the virus. The app will ask them a number of “yes” or “no” questions after participants have registered some personal information (name, date of birth, phone number). If the answers to the questions point to a possible infection than the user will be given advice on what steps to take next. The developers of the app have stated that the software also collects data about health and location. This data is then stored centrally on servers owned by the regional authorities. They claim that this data is only used for epidemiologic research, and not for monitoring people.

The national government is also developing an app that will collect data on the spread of the virus. Spanish newspaper El País wrote that the department of Commerce green-lit the development of an app that will help in the fight against the coronavirus. Users of the app can register possible symptoms in the app to check whether they might have been infected with the virus.

The app is also supposed to collect data on the spread of the virus. It is not meant to be used to monitor the Spanish people to see whether they are actually staying at home, since the enforcement of the lockdown is in the hands of local and regional authorities. But at the same time, the governmental order does leave space for contacting people via WhatsApp when they leave their home regions. The government denies that they will actually use this option.

The department of Health revealed on April 1 that over 40 million smartphones in Spain are being tracked. This is part of a research named DataCovid and is a side project for the app mentioned before. The government wants to use the GPS location of smartphones to track movement of people between regions, so that inter-regional measures can be fine-tuned. The government stated that all data has been anonymized.

France

France has been hit hard by the virus. There have been almost 120,000 registered infections and over 12,000 deaths. France has implemented a strict lockdown. People are allowed to leave their home for one hour each day, and have to stay within a one mile radius of their home. And of course this is only allowed when absolutely necessary, so only for groceries or for travel to work. France is following the UK in developing an app to stop the spread of the virus. It is expected that it will take at least three to six weeks to develop this app.

Precise details about what the app will do are not available yet. The secretaries of Health and Digital Affairs told Le Monde that the app will make use of Bluetooth. Cedric O, the secretary of Digital affairs, did admit that there are some flaws in the workings of the app, so the government might decide not to launch the app after all.

O also explained that privacy is the main issue in developing the app. French privacy watchdog CNIL can make recommendations and these will be taken very seriously by the government. The privacy measures set by PEPP-PT will also be taken into account. Other than that, the government is encouraging people to download apps that offer basic medical advice. The app Covidom is used for that in the Paris area.

Austria

Austria went into lockdown on March 16. From then on you were only allowed to go out for groceries, some fresh air (once a day), or to go to work. The police kept a watchful eye and checked whether people were adhering to the measures. The lockdown seems to be a success, since fewer than 300 people have died from the virus.

The Austrian Red Cross launched the app Stopp Corona soon after the announcement of the lockdown. This app will be the main weapon in the fight against the virus now that the government is slowly bringing things back to normal. Small shops have been allowed to open again after Easter and larger stores and hair salons will soon follow. If this is successful, hotels and restaurants will be able to open their doors again by mid-May.

Stopp Corona uses Bluetooth to communicate with other phones. It communicates not to pair with other phones, but to encrypt and locally save anonymized ID-numbers. The Austrian Red Cross calls this a Digital Handshake. This doesn’t happen with just any passer-by. Only people who have spent over 15 minutes with each other being less than 6 feet apart will be registered. When a person gets infected with the virus he needs to register that in the app. The app can then notify anyone he has been in contact with over the last 54 hours.

Does Stopp Corona value your privacy? The app does not save data such as location or contact list. But when you do get infected you are asked to share your phone number. This number is then saved centrally, most likely on the servers owned by the Austrian Red Cross. The Red Cross only has your unique user ID (UUID) if you don’t show any symptoms. The developers have said that this ID is in no way connected to any other data. The data has not been anonymized, but has been pseudonymized.

Bluetooth is the most important feature for this app, but it also needs access to the microphone of your device. And that is the first time we’ve heard of that. Why do they need this? The microphone is used to send out ultrasonic tones that cannot be heard by the human ear. The app will be able to determine the distance between devices when other phones send out these tones as well.

Almost 300,000 people have downloaded Stopp Corona. This is only a small percentage of the population, since there are 9 million people in Austria. Nevertheless, the Austrian government has faith that the app can help prevent a second outbreak in the country. Other countries have shown interest in this app. These countries include The Netherlands and Australia.

Poland

Even though the number of infections is quite low in Poland, the government is still taking measures to ensure that the virus does not spread. Like other European countries, Poland has launched an app to reach this goal. The app is named Kwarantanna domowa, which roughly translates to self-quarantine app. The app doesn’t use Bluetooth or GPS to track people, but it makes use of selfies. The concept is that people who are in quarantine have to prove that they are actually at home by sending selfies to the department of Digital Affairs.

How does this work? Of course, simply sending in a selfie doesn’t prove anything. This is where the government’s app comes in. It uses facial recognition software to determine whether the person really is who he claims to be. The app also locates where the photo was taken. Participants need to send in a selfie several times a day. The app will send out selfie requests at random and when a photo isn’t taken within 20 minutes police will be notified. Going out for a long walk is out of the question because of this.

Police will be sent to your house when the app registers that you are not actually at home. They will check whether you are there or not. You risk a fine of a $120 when you get caught, and fines can go up to $1200.

The Polish government is very clear about the use of the app. It is compulsory to install it. A spokesperson for the department of Digital Affairs told French press agent AFP that you have two options when you have to go into quarantine: you install the app, or the police is sent to your house.

British journalist Jakub Krupa said that he thinks that the government automatically creates an account for everybody who is a suspected corona patient. Polish workers who are now traveling home are definitely regarded as such.

Russia

President Putin launched an app to fight to virus at the start of April. The concept of the app is very different from what we’ve seen around Europe so far. Most apps are used to warn people when they have been in contact with someone who has been infected with the virus. Instead, the Kremlin has decided that they want to monitor people who have been quarantined. You can see it as a type of GPS ankle monitor worn by convicts. Big Brother is now watching you, for real.

The Russian government is also working on a system using QR-codes. All inhabitants of Moscow who have registered online are sent a QR code. This code can be used to identify themselves when going out on the street. Authorities can then check whether this person is allowed to be out. If they are they can continue on their way without any hassle. Critics have called the app and the QR code system a “digital concentration camp.”

Turkey

Turkey is not taking the pandemic lightly, which makes sense with over 60,000 registered infections. Schools have been closed, national and international flights have been cancelled, and meetings have mostly been banned. President Erdogan has told the Turkish people to keep at least “three steps” distance from each other. People who do choose to go out are obliged to wear a face mask. A 48-hour mandatory lockdown in 31 cities caused quite some panic. The announcement was made only two hours before the lockdown came into effect, so people rushed out to do groceries. This resulted in long lines outside the stores where people were too close to each other. The secretary responsible for this wanted to step down because of it, but Erdogan would not accept his resignation.

Erdogan is taking the fight against the virus a step further than most of Europe. The president announced at the start of April that he will be tracking mobile phones. The department of Communication told Reuters that Erdogan wants to track all movement of people and send out messages or call people who leave their house. Turks who don’t adhere to self-quarantine restrictions will be visited by the police and receive a fine. Specific plans for the development of such an app have not been released yet.

Turkish law does not stop the president from doing all of this. He is allowed to take special measures in extraordinary circumstances, such as a pandemic. He doesn’t need to ask parliament for permission when he wants to monitor or wiretap large groups of people, wants to put cities on lockdown, or stop all social life. Democracy is set aside when Erdogan is trying to reach a goal.

Apps in the US

World map USA

The virus has exploded onto the scene in the US. The country is becoming a hotbed for the virus, with over 760,000 registered infections at the time of writing. No other country in the world has more infected people. President Trump announced at the beginning of April that between 100,000 and 240,000 people will most likely die from the virus. Large cities such as L.A. have been hit hard and doctors have referred to it as “hell on earth” when asked about the situation in the hospitals there. Trump has decided to invest in the economy; he has made over 2 billion dollars available for more than 300 million people. Over 17 million people in the US are unemployed at the moment.

There are no actual plans in the US to develop a contact tracing app, but experts have said that one can be developed within a matter of weeks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring location data from mobile phones. This data is combined with information provided by the advertising industry and is used to map the movement of people. Researchers are doing this to find out at what rate, and where, the virus is spreading. Civil rights movements have spoken out against this violation of privacy. They are wondering whether it is legal for a government to have access to this type of information.

Google and Apple are also trying to pitch in. Together, they will develop a way for Android-phones and iPhones to communicate with each other. “Anonymized beacons”, which are comparable to anonymized ID numbers, can then be exchanged via Bluetooth. To do this, you need an Application Programming Interface or API. Both companies stated that this will be launched in May. Google and Apple will then use the months after the launch to develop a more general contact tracing platform which will use Bluetooth as well. The companies say that this platform will be more useful than the API since more people will be able to participate. Developing an app also allows governments and health agencies to adjust it for their own needs. Google and Apple stated in a blog that “[p]rivacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze”.

covid-19 google and apple method

Facebook is joining the party as well. Mark Zuckerberg’s platform is helping researchers by making Facebook’s data available to them through the Data for Good program. Researchers can use this information to map the spread of the virus in the US so that they know where medical resources will be needed. Like other big data companies, Facebook collects a lot of information. Every minute there are 317,000 status updates, 147,000 photos posted, and 54,000 links shared on the platform.

Apps in Asia and the Middle East

world map asia

China

It all started in China. At the height of the epidemic there were over 82,000 infections in the country. But the last few news items about the situation there tell us that there are barely any new cases registered. Wuhan was in lockdown for about 75 days, but people are now going back out on the streets. Stores are allowed to open their doors again, but the government is still closely monitoring the situation. They want to make sure that there will not be a second wave of infections.

China has deployed its extensive population surveillance capabilities to contain the spread of the virus. Apps, phone tracking, face recognition and even drones are being utilized to establish where individuals have been, when and with whom. The communist regime took every step necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Some of the measures taken could even be deemed draconian. A drone flying over your head and shouting at you to go back home is quite intimidating. And a policeman on every corner checking your temperature when you pass is a bit much compared to most standards. Having your every move monitored by the government through an app is another extreme measure that was taken. And China makes it mandatory for all citizens to install apps like these.

Another way that the Chinese government took control over the situation is that existing apps (like Alipay and WeChat) had to incorporate a color system. The app provides each user with a color code depending on their quarantine status. The app will then let users know whether their quarantine status is such that they are allowed to leave their home or not. It also tells them if they are allowed to use public transport. Users need to show their color code to authorities when requested. Individuals with a “Green” code can move around the city freely. Individuals with “Yellow” are more restricted and individuals with “Red” are in full lockdown. The app also shares its data with the police.

Singapore

Even though Singapore has seen a relatively low number of people infected, they are doing all they can to stop the spread of the virus. That is why the government launched the app TraceTogether at the end of March.

When users install the app they will need to enable Bluetooth. The app will measure how long you have been in contact with someone and how far apart you were during the meeting. It can do this through Relative Signal Strength Indication (RSSI). If you spend too much time with someone and you’re too close together your devices will exchange anonymized ID numbers. This information will be encrypted and saved locally on your phone for 21 days. The app will not collect any data that can be traced back to individuals. When you get infected you will register that in the app. The app will then notify anyone you’ve recently been in contact with.

Data collected by TraceTogether will not be forwarded to the government, unless someone has explicitly given permission for it. Any person who wants to unsubscribe from the app can send an email to the department of Health, including their phone number, and they will then delete all your data from their servers. The government does not want to make anyone install the app, but they have said that it is best that as many people as possible use the app.

The app will only function as planned when enough people participate. To be effective, about 75% of the people should download the app, but this has not happened. The virus is still spreading in the country, and many migrants are getting infected at the moment.

South Korea

In 2015 South Korea was hit by the MERS virus. New laws were implemented after that epidemic. That is why this time the government was ready to fight the coronavirus. The measures that are taken in these situations are not necessarily respecting people’s privacy, since that is not the main goal. It is not seen as something to strive for in the fight against a virus.

Many testing locations have been set up in South Korea at which people can get tested for free. These locations look a bit like a drive-through. People will know within 24 hours whether they have been infected with the virus. It is estimated that about 15,000 people get tested like this every day. 300,000 people have already been tested so far. No other country in the world has tested more people.

People are immediately put in quarantine when they test positive. The government will then use GPS data, credit card details, and security footage to trace someone’s steps and to notify the people they have been in contact with. These people will receive a text that includes personal details about the infected person, such as sex, date of birth, travel history, hospital where patient is treated, and more. The government also uses GPS tracking apps to monitor their civilians. These are being used to ensure people don’t break quarantine restrictions. If someone moves beyond the area to which they have been restricted the app sounds an alarm to authorities.

In South Korea, applications have been developed, which all Koreans must download to their phones. These apps have been created ostensibly to help citizens stay safe. They provide users with real-time information on the most recent case reports and where these cases have occurred. They also provide users with information on how close they are at any given time to reported sites of infection. There are websites which tell you where corona patients are located at any time. One of these is coronamap.site. Most Koreans check this site daily to see whether new cases have emerged in their location.

Privacy organizations say that these measures are a breach of privacy, and rightly so. But, these methods are effective. Official records show that only 237 people have died so far. The South Korean government says that is more important than privacy.

India

An app was launched in India which monitors the movement of people who are in quarantine. The app was developed by students from RIT-Jamshedpur. It works in a similar way as the Polish app does. The app requests people to send in a selfie at home several times a day. This is used to check whether a person is actually staying at home. If not, then the person will be contacted by the authorities.

Taiwan

The Taiwanese government uses smartphone tracking data to notify the authorities when someone leaves the house who should be in quarantine.

An American student in Taiwan describes in an article published by the BBC that the authorities are also notified when your phone is switched off. He wrote that his phone had died and that police showed up at his house about 45 minutes later.

The tracking data is also used to check healthcare, immigration, and customs databases. This is all done so that the virus does not spread across the island.

Hong Kong

People are given wristbands that are connected to an app in Hong-Kong. These wristbands are used to make sure that people stay at home and don’t break quarantine.

The wristband and app use geofencing instead of GPS location tracking. People who arrive into the country are given a wristband an a QR code that matches the band to the app StayHomeSafe. When you get home you have to walk around your house so that the app can pick up all the unique signals flying around. Think of WIFI, cellphone networks, and Bluetooth signals from devices you own. Once these signals are all saved in the app it will know when you leave your house. It will no longer pick up these signals when you do. The app will then alert the government. If you violate quarantine you risk 6 months in prison or a fine up to $3,200.

The Hong Kong government argued that this system does not invade someone’s privacy since it doesn’t register your location. All it does is look at the signals in your home to deduct whether you are in your house.

Israel

An app has been developed in Israel as well. The department of Health launched the app Hamagen at the end of March. This translates to “the shield”. They said that it is a platform that notifies people when they have been in contact with an infected person in the last 14 days. They will receive time and location data about that contact, but they will not be told any personal details. They will then be notified that they have to self-quarantine. The government promised that the app does not share location data with the department of Health. The data collected is cross-referenced with epidemiologic data at the Health department.

The government is not the only player in the battle against the virus. Shin Bet, the Israelian secret service, is also involved. The Israelian secret service can analyze your phone when you get infected, so that they can find out who you have been in contact with. Anyone who had contact with an infected person for more than ten minutes and was within a 6 feet radius of them will be reported to the department of Health. Those people can then be quarantined as well. The information is also forwarded to the police, so that they can check if people are adhering to the measures.

What is happening in Israel looks a lot like what happens in a police state. And the debate in parliament about corona control showed some proof of that. Parliament members criticized the government’s plans by saying that people should not be allowed to be monitored for more than 30 days. Netanyahu promised to try and carry out that demand, but pushed his plan through anyway without parliamentary approval. The 30 day limit was changed to a non-existing one. And the period of time that the collected data can be stored was stretched to 60 days, claiming that this was needed to make an internal investigation possible after this is over.

Iran

A message was sent to all Iranian citizens on March 3 2020 to tell them that they had to download an app before going to a hospital or health center. The name of this app is AC19. It is claimed that this app can determine whether you have been infected by the virus by asking you a number of “yes” or “no” questions.

Nariman Gharib, an Iranian security researcher in London, took a look at the app’s code. He told VICE News that AC19 uses location tracking to determine where a user is. It also uses an Android library that is normally used by fitness apps to track movement. “They can really track your movements. They can monitor you in real time when you move from location A to location B.”

It is not clear how many Iranians have downloaded the app. A tweet by ICT secretary MJ Azari Jahromi stated that more than 3.5 million people had already shared private and location data with the government.

Pakistan

Several Pakistani citizens received a message on March 24 stating that they had potentially been in contact with a Covid-19 patient.

“It has been observed that you may have come in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case in the last 14 days. You are, therefore, requested to take necessary precautionary measures by self-quarantine,” the alert reads according to Dawn.

This measure was most likely implemented via cell site location information (CSLI) and call detail record (CDR) data collection methods. Details about locations visited by a confirmed patient, and mobile phone numbers of people who were there at the same time, can be obtained from the patient’s phone records through CDS analysis.

Apps in Oceania

world map australia new zealand

Australia

In Australia every state takes a different approach to contact tracing. Most states do not opt to use apps to track contact. They put their faith in traditional methods and simply ask people who they have been in contact with. The federal government and New South Wales (NSW) use aggregated and anonymized phone data supplied by telecommunication companies to track the movement of people. Though nobody uses that data to track the movement of an individual, even though this would be legal in Australia at the time of a pandemic.

Though local government have launched various apps in Australia. One of these apps is Whispr in Victoria. This app allows the government to track the location of Covid-19 patients. The authorities can also use the app to communicate with a person via text-message. The app helps to make sure that people are adhering to self-quarantine. People who don’t risk a fine of $25,000. A fine for a company can go up to $100,000. An app is used in Southern Australia as well, which monitors movement of corona patients.

Victor Dominello, a parliament member in NSW, said that privacy and civil rights are top priority. That is why the government does not track the movement of individuals. He explained that the only way to save lives and respond to the virus is to collect data about it. He stated that using phone data to monitor people in quarantine is not an option for NSW. NSW is researching technologies that could help to improve their contact tracing process.

Western Australia launched an app named Snewpit in March. The developer explained that the app helps in speeding up the process of registering Covid-19 infections. It should prevent delays during which more people could get infected. Some members of the community have voiced their concern about possible panic that could be caused by the notifications on smartphones. But a community psychologist explained that stressed and even hysteric users will be calmed down by the information instead.

New Zealand

New Zealand is not tracking movement op people yet. OptiTrac, a technology company based in Christchurch, is developing an app that will track contact and self-isolation. Tom Riley, OptiTrac’s CEO, stated that the app is almost finished and he is willing to offer it to the government. So far, the government has not responded to his offer.

Experts say that digital contact tracing will be necessary in New Zealand once lockdown is over. The basic contact tracing that is done manually now will not suffice once people start moving around again.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, has also stated that the government is interested in the app used in Singapore. Singapore is working on making the code of the app available to other countries.

Apps in South America

world map latin america

Argentinia

Big data company Grandata created a heatmap to show which areas in Argentina are conforming best to the quarantine measures. This map was presented in March.

Grandata used an anonymized dataset that was collected by apps that provide geolocation data to third parties. The map shows whether a person is more than a yard away from the place he spends most of his time. This does not take the social economic context into consideration. Some people might have to travel miles to get to the nearest place to buy food or find essential services.

Privacy International wrote that “this is the perfect example of the data exploitation industry and data brokers, using data that users probably where not aware they were sharing with third parties like Grandata.”

Ecuador

Ecuador TV reported that María Paula Romo, secretary of Foreign Affairs, announced that the government is planning to use satellite tracing to make sure that people adhere to quarantine measures.

Privacy International says that “[t]he Ecuadorian government has authorised tracking mobile phones via GPS satellite to ensure that citizens do not break mandatory quarantine after six violators were identified”.

Brazil

Some local governments are already tracking smartphones to check whether Brazilians are adhering to the lockdown. ZDNet reported that the mayor of Recife announced that over 700,000 smartphones are tracked to monitor whether people adhere to the lockdown measures.

The report states that “[g]overnments across Brazil are looking to roll out a system developed that uses geolocation tracking to support actions around the lockdowns intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The system was developed by InLoco, a Brazilian startup. It geotracks users “through a location map that doesn’t use GPS or beacons, which InLoco claims to be 30 times more accurate than GPS”.

Apps in Africa

world map africa

Barely any governments on the African continent are using apps, or any technology, to fight the coronavirus. No major lockdown has been implemented either. People simply wouldn’t be able to adhere to measures like that since life mainly happens in the streets. A basic task such a washing your hands will happen out on the street in most homes. This makes social distancing very complicated. Many countries do have epidemiologists walking around in white aprons to disinfect surfaces used by the community.

Another measure taken all over Africa is that transactions are mostly be paid by card. This is again difficult in areas of some of the countries, since cash transactions are the only option. Kenya has enforced a curfew so that people stay indoors at night. The Kenyan government tries to limit people’s travel as well, so that the virus doesn’t spread any further.

Morocco

Morocco is one of the countries on the African continent that did implement measures very quickly when the virus hit. The government declared a state of emergency in March and set a curfew that would last a month. All national and international flights were cancelled. This caused some issues for tourists. Many are still stuck in the country, unable to fly back home.

The Moroccan government have not officially implemented a lockdown, but people are not allowed to leave their home for just anything. They can go do groceries, they can leave in case of a medical emergency, and they can go to work. Both the police and the military are keeping an eye out to see whether people adhere to the measures.

The measures have had an enormous impact on society. It is estimated that about 2.4 million Moroccans no longer have an income. Many of these people were working illegally, as a part of the black economy, or were on temporary contracts and have now been fired. Some of these people are cleaners, farmers, caterers, or street salespeople. The Economic Monitoring Committee (EMC) promised to help these people financially once they were told to stay inside. They can register with them and they are then given a code with which they can get cash out. The amount you get depends on the size of your family. Some organizations fear that this information will be used for tax purposes in the future.

The Moroccan government uses two apps to battle Covid-19. The first was developed by a startup named Dakibot. The company set up a chatbot that answers FAQs concerning the coronavirus. The other app was launched by the department of Health. It is aimed at medical professionals and can be used to exchange information in a fast and simple way. The government hopes that this helps people to be more effective in battling the coronavirus.

South Africa

South-African Communication secretary Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told reporters on March 24 that it is important to look at individuals that have been affected by the virus, so that we can help healthcare professionals. That is the only way to know how many people have been infected in a certain area. The telecommunication industry has agreed to analyze user data to help the government achieve this. It is not clear in what way this will happen exactly.

The Idea Behind the Apps

Many countries have decided that they want to make use of technology to help combat the coronavirus. European scientists introduced software for a corona tracking app at the start of April. This could be used by the general public to keep track of who they have been in contact with. The app will notify you when you have been in contact with someone who has been infected with the virus. Other apps have emerged as well, such as tools to contact your doctor, ask questions, and discuss possible corona symptoms. Applications like these could slow down the spread of the virus, but can also help to decrease the pressure on healthcare providers. Polling has shown that many people are in favor of implementing these kind of apps.

At first, these ideas may seem like the way to go in the battle against Covid-19. But once you take a moment to think you might come up with some questions and reservations. How does an app that notifies you when you’ve been in contact with a corona patient really work? How and where is the information that is collected by these apps stored? Who has access to this data? Will our privacy be protected? These questions keep many researchers on their toes, since they are all valid and important questions to ask.

The Technical Side of Things: How do these Apps Work?

So there are two types of apps out there: contact tracing apps and communication apps. Most media focus on the first, since many people want to know how it actually functions. There are two possible ways to track people when you talk about a corona tracing app. The two options are Bluetooth or GPS.

Installing an App

Obviously, the first thing that your going to have to do is to install the app on your smartphone. This is easier for Android users than for Apple. Android users are not restricted to the Google Play Store to download and install apps. Developers can also offer their applications in other ways, like on their own website or through a different platform.

You can only download from the App Store when you have an iPhone, leaving jailbroken devices out of the picture for a moment. This means that developers have to offer their app to Apple. Apple will check whether the app complies to all the conditions that have been set for developers. If it doesn’t it means that it’s back to the drawing table. And even when everything is deemed fine it can take weeks before Apple green-lights an app. Valuable time will get lost in the process. Governments could potentially ask Apple to speed up the process, since there is a pandemic, but that won’t guarantee anything. To get around all of this you could use an app that has already been approved by Apple.

On top of this there is the issue that, on iOS, apps like these don’t work very well in the background. The app will function at its best when it’s open and no other apps are used. If you forget to open the app, or you’re doing something else on your phone, then the app won’t work as well. According to Statcounter almost a third of Europeans use iPhones. In the US it’s up to 60% of the people, so that could be a major issue. It would mean that that app won’t work properly for many of them.

Locating via GPS

Installing the app is only the first step. It’s up to the people to activate the app and actively use it once it is installed on their smartphones. How? That isn’t really clear yet. It is most likely up to you to inform the app that you’re ill and are showing symptoms associated with the coronavirus. This means that you have a cold, a fever, have trouble breathing, or suffer a loss of smell. The app won’t be able to tell you whether you actually have the virus, but will probably assume that you do. So when you say that you’re showing symptoms you will be marked as a corona patient. Though medical science has shown that the symptoms of the virus vary a lot from patient to patient.

When the app knows that you have possibly been infected with the virus it will inform anyone you’ve been in contact with and warn them. This will include people in your immediate surroundings (family and friends) but also people that you passed in the street, at work, or doing groceries.

In this day and age almost every smartphone is equipped with a GPS chip. This chip knows, almost precisely, where you are on this planet. Not only when you are standing still, but also when you are moving around. Check Maps, Google’s navigation app. It can tell you exactly where you where on a certain date, what time you arrived, what route you took to get there, and which photos you took during your visit. All this information is neatly sorted for you. Dating apps such as Grindr, Tinder, and Happn use GPS as well.

Locating via Bluetooth

Bluetooth is another option to use for these apps. You can wirelessly connect to other devices through Bluetooth. You might own Bluetooth headphones to listen to music. Or you use Bluetooth to connect to a smartwatch or to your car. You can also use it to send documents from one phone to another. Bluetooth makes all of it possible.

Bluetooth can also be used to identify another person. Every device has its own MAC address, which is an ID-number for the chip in the device. This chip is in every device that can access the internet or your home network. Every Bluetooth device has its own unique number as well (BD_ADDR). Smartphones usually have both numbers. These numbers can then be used by the tracking app to identify people.

How does that work? You install the app and enable Bluetooth. Your phone will send out a unique ID-number when you walk down the street. When you run into people who have done the same your phones will connect to each other and swap ID-numbers. This way, you will collect a list of ID-numbers in no time. There does need to be actual contact. If you run past someone it won’t have the chance to connect.

Imagine you do actually get infected with the virus. You will then tell the app that you have and the app will notify everyone you have been in contact with. They can then take measures to stay healthy, quarantine themselves, talk to their doctor, or visit a hospital.

Issues – It is not a Doctor

These apps sound like the perfect solution for stopping the spread of the virus. But is it? Experts are not jumping up and down and don’t see them as such. One issue is that the app can give you false notifications. Imagine that you are inside washing your windows and someone who is infected walks past. You will then get notified. For no reason, since there was a window between you and the patient. The app obviously does not take this into consideration.

The app also does not know whether you have actually been infected with the virus. It’s an app, not a doctor. It’s up to you to take action when you think you could be infected. Someone could easily prank others and stir up everything by pretending to be infected. The app won’t know it isn’t true. Governments need to think about how to deal with these issues. Do people have to have a doctor’s note before they can register a positive result in the app?

A practical issue is that for the app to be really effective, people need to own smartphones and have them on them all the time. If you leave your phone at home or in the car, or your battery has died, then there is no point. And if you still own an old phone without Bluetooth or apps then this doesn’t help you either.

Privacy

Privacy organizations are worried that our privacy will be invaded. Contact tracing apps can only be used if our anonymity is guaranteed. These apps deal with sensitive medical information, so it is key that this data is handled correctly. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) asked its members to develop one European app. A list of guidelines has been presented to governments that are developing tracking apps. By doing this they can guarantee security for all users and they can avoid fragmentation of the internal market.

Most countries are doing everything to ensure this security. At the same time it is clear that apps like these will only work when a majority of the people installs them. So could governments force the people to install them?

Privacy Concerns in Brussels

Brussels is also voicing privacy concerns. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB), the data protection watchdog, asked member states at the start of April to not all develop an app on their own, but the join forces and develop one European app. The European commission agreed and stated that Europe is stronger when it works together. This is why the European board presented a toolbox including guidelines for governments to use when developing apps. The European Commission says that this is their way to guarantee privacy and avoid fragmentation of the internal market.

The EDPB raises its voice again two weeks later. They are still worried about the way in which contact tracing apps are used. Andrea Jelinek, head of the EDPB, writes an open letter in which she explains that the development of these apps should be transparent. Developers need to be accountable and the code should be open sourced. She also says that apps like these will only work when enough people use it. And it’s up to the people to take this “collective responsibility”.

She continues by saying that it is not necessary to track individuals. That is in conflict with the concept of data minimalization. Arguments can be made for both locally and centrally saved data, as long as the protection of the data is up to standard. She finishes with the request that apps should only be used to identify and inform infected people. Afterwards, all data needs to be destroyed.

How to Save the Data

Another question that arises is how the data should be saved. It can be saved locally, or centrally. When you save data locally it means that it is saved on your device where it is encrypted. No one can access the information. When you choose to save the data centrally, at a data center, it means that someone can access this data, namely the organization that collects the data and saves it for you. This could turn out to be very practical, since it means that the organization can move quickly when necessary. The downside to it is that it brings major security and privacy risks. And this is what most opponents are warning us about. Whenever a hacker can get access to the data our sensitive information is out on the streets.

Main author
Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.
Co-Author
Tech journalist
Tech lover to the core: Anton loves everything that has to do with technology and the internet. Cybersecurity, privacy and internet censorship therefore have his full attention.

More articles from the ‘News’ section

Comments
Leave a comment
Leave a comment