Is Qatar’s use of authoritarian tech eroding privacy?

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Is Qatar’s use of authoritarian tech eroding privacy?
Is Qatar’s use of authoritarian tech eroding privacy?

Countries around the world are using authoritarian tech to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Qatar has just introduced an app Ehteraz and made it mandatory for its citizens to have installed it. Is such use of technology eroding democracy and privacy? Read GVS detailed report.

As the world is gearing up to contain the spread of novel Coronavirus, Qatar is all set to use technology to stop the virus. As of now, the tiny oil-rich country has 23 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, with more than 40,000 people infected amid a population of roughly 2.8 million.

The government officials maintain that the new Ehteraz app is intended to contain the outbreak of a deadly pandemic. However, as the app requires access to files on the phone and permanent use of its GPS and Bluetooth for location tracking, rights organizations and independent analysts raise important questions with regard to the functioning of the app and citizens’ right to privacy.

Importantly, all the citizens have been required to have the Ehteraz contact-tracing app installed on mobile devices when leaving their homes, allowing the government to track if the user has been in touch with an infected person. Notably, not having the app installed could lead to a maximum fine of $55,000 or three years in prison. The human rights organization in Qatar is questioning the latest app and its function fearing that the authoritarian tech is eroding privacy.

Government’s position: “Not an attempt to control citizens”

A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera that user data would be safe and accessible only to health professionals.

The government has asserted that other agencies, such as law enforcement, cannot access personal data on the app, and any data collected would be deleted after two months. “We confirm that all user data on Ehteraz app is completely confidential and is only accessible to relevant, specialized teams when necessary,” Qatar’s Director of the Public Health Department Dr Mohamed bin Hamad Al Thani said.

The government of Qatar has also told local media: “The application enables the competent authorities to track the areas where this person was present since downloading the application until the moment of infection and thus all people or a large percentage of the people who mix with them can be known as long they are using the same application.”

Qatari officials maintain that there is no reason for the public to distrust the app. “Ehteraz will never undermine the privacy of the users, and the stored information will not be kept beyond two months before being deleted forever,” Dr Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani said.

Is the app eroding privacy?

Amnesty International reported on Tuesday that they uncovered security vulnerabilities in the Ehteraz app, which have since been fixed after the rights group alerted the Qatari authorities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and several independent studies have called the use of apps into doubt, with the WHO saying there is “only anecdotal evidence” they are effective, adding they should not replace manual contact tracing.

Eva Blum-Dumontet, senior researcher at privacy organization Privacy International, questioned why Ehteraz needs a phone number and personal identification number to work, while other countries put out apps that do not need that type of personal information.

“Any app that requires a personal ID number, especially when it is stored in a centralized database, is at risk of outside people getting access to these databases,” Blum-Dumontet said, also referring to Singapore’s app, which uses a similar database system containing contact information. “ID numbers are often almost like biometric data, and you can’t change them easily. So if it’s out there after a leak or a hack, for example, consequences are a lot bigger,” she added.

A better way to do this, the EFF and others say, is using so-called “decentralized anonymized systems”, which collect the least amount of personal information, that is then only stored on the device and not in a central database.

MIT’s Ryan-Mosley added that making any app mandatory might not actually work. “There’s research done that if a government makes something compulsory, like an app, for instance, the likelihood of people putting their trust in it is less,” she said, adding: “If people don’t trust them, they are going to be looking for workarounds, not using these apps in good faith.”

Governments using authoritarian tech to get more control?

To ensure lockdowns and physical distancing, the governments around the world are using various tactics ranging from the imposition of fines to digital cameras to restrict people’s movements. Analyst are mulling over is the use of authoritarian tech eroding privacy?

Sindh, province of southeastern Pakistan, Police Department’s Security and Emergency Service Division has recently launched an application dubbed “Citizen Monitoring App.” The Citizen Monitoring App is designed to keep tabs on citizens roaming around the city. It will be available only to the officials and will be installed on Mobile Phones used by officers deputed at police checkpoints.

Similarly, the Moscow police claimed to have caught and fined 200 people who violated quarantine and self-isolation using facial recognition and a 170,000-camera system. According to a Russian media report some of the alleged violators who were fined had been outside for less than half a minute before they were picked up by a camera.

In Israel, the Shin Bet security service has shifted its powerful surveillance program to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients or suspected carriers. The mechanism is similar to that used in Russia — phone and credit card data are used for mapping, and health officials must then alert and quarantine people who were within 2 meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

In South Korea, the government used data from credit card transactions, phone geolocation, and surveillance footage to give detailed information on coronavirus patients, without identifying them by name, according to a government website. The result was a map where people can see if they were in close proximity to a coronavirus carrier. Detailed histories led to some patients being doxxed — having their personal information outed without consent — and authorities decided to scale down the data-sharing policies.

Basis of the free world being challenged?

Experts believe that these tools will become a permanent part of our lives, and the governments will use them to control citizens. Is the use of authoritarian tech eroding privacy? Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, believes that “many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.”

Moreover, Harari notes that “immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.”

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