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A woman in medical gloves holding an iPhone.    © 2020 Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Moscow authorities have wrongly fined hundreds, if not thousands, of people for allegedly breaching self-quarantine based on dubious interpretations of behavior by a “social monitoring” tracking app, Human Rights Watch said today.

The app, designed to track people with Covid-19 and symptoms of other respiratory diseases, unjustifiably invades users’ privacy, is mired in flaws and technical glitches, and should immediately be discontinued.

“While protecting human life and public health is a paramount concern during the pandemic, Moscow’s social monitoring app could end up discouraging people from seeking out testing or health care, putting them and others at greater risk,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The app is intrusive, violates privacy and other rights, and should be dropped.”

Moscow has the highest number of Covid-19 cases registered in Russia, with more than 150,000 cases as of May 20, 2020.

Moscow authorities had originally introduced the app online at the end of March but promptly took it down for fine-tuning. In April, the revised app was re-introduced. On April 21, Moscow’s mayor issued a decree stipulating that anyone, including children, displaying symptoms of a respiratory disease should, just like those who have tested positive for Covid-19, undergo a two-week self-quarantine period. The decree also requires people who share their residence to comply with the quarantine.

Doctors were tasked with having patients and their family members sign a quarantine notification, which includes a line in small print that they are required to install the app. But it provides no guidance about how to use the app and what may trigger a fine. Refusal to sign the quarantine notification may result in forced hospitalization.

The social monitoring app gains access to the user’s location, calls, camera, network information, sensors, and other data to ensure that people instructed to self-quarantine do not leave their home during the two-week period. It is unclear why the app would need access to all of this data to monitor compliance with self-isolation. Data collected should be limited in scope, and safeguards should be put in place to ensure it’s not used for other purposes, Human Rights Watch said.

The tracking data is stored on the city hall’s server for one year. Mobile tracking programs should be viewed as a strictly temporary measure until the pandemic is under control, Human Rights Watch said. Retaining users’ data for a year in connection with a two-week quarantine is neither a necessary nor proportionate interference with the right to privacy and may contribute toward an expanded surveillance regime.

Although the app has been in use for only a few weeks, it has already triggered a major public outcry. Critics have underscored the app’s excessive intrusiveness and its potential to become a dangerous tool in the hands of an abusive government. It is also deeply flawed on many levels and results in many fines automatically issued to people who are in fact fully complying with self-quarantine regulations.

The app randomly sends push notifications to users instructing them to immediately take and send a selfie as a proof of not having left the house without the phone. If users miss a notification, they are automatically fined 4,000 rubles (approximately US$56). Some users said that the notification would arrive in the middle of the night while they were sleeping and that they had been fined by the time they woke up.

One Covid-19 patient told the media that her health deteriorated after several days of home quarantine, prompting her to call an ambulance. While in the ambulance on her way to the hospital, the woman fell asleep and then was fined for failing to promptly respond to a notification requesting a selfie. Some users reported that they did their best to make the selfie, but that the frame would freeze or the selfie would not send, triggering an automatic fine. Some of the affected users are contesting the fines in court. Failure to install the app also results in a fine.

Among those fined was Irina Karabulatova, who had not left her bed for over a year because of a disability. After coming down with a sore throat, she was seen at her home by a doctor, who gave her a quarantine form to sign. She saw the line about the mandatory app and asked why she would need it when she could not leave her house even if she wanted to. The doctor said she probably didn’t need the app but still had to sign the document. Apprehensive about not following the instruction, Karabulatova made several attempts to install the app, did not succeed, and was fined.

Many app users and their relatives went online to condemn the app and the arbitrary fines and to urge the authorities to drop the measure. However, the head of Moscow’s Information Technology Department refused to acknowledge any problems, asserting that “no fines were issued by mistake.” As of May 20, 60,000 Moscow residents have installed the app and 53,000 fines have been issued. Thirty percent of the fined users received multiple fines.

Although the required self-quarantine period lasts 2 weeks, the app does not shut down until 10 days after the user obtains a certificate from a healthcare facility stating that their period of sick leave has ended. To obtain the certificate, the person needs to go to a clinic with the app still working and risk receiving another fine for supposedly breaching self-quarantine regulations.

“The Moscow authorities have understandably been looking at a range of solutions, including technology, in their struggle to contain the virus, but these efforts should be lawful, necessary, proportionate, transparent, and justified by legitimate public health objectives,” said Williamson. “Moscow’s social monitoring app doesn’t meet these criteria. It’s intrusive, deeply flawed, and arbitrarily punishes law-abiding people along with actual quarantine violators.”

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