(Adds Bahrain government comment in pars 5-7)
By Umberto Bacchi
MILAN, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kuwait and Bahrain must stop using “highly invasive” COVID-19 apps which violate the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people by tracking them almost in real time, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
The human rights group also slammed a Norwegian app, which health authorities said they would stop using on Monday after the country’s data protection watchdog cited privacy concerns given the low spread of the new coronavirus.
“Authorities are essentially able to see movements in real time of anybody who has the apps installed,” Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty’s Security Lab, which focuses on digital threats, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They would be able to tell where you are, who you are meeting, where you live, where you work ... or whatever it is that might tell something about you,” he said, adding such information was open to abuse.
Bahrain said the app has played a key role in the Gulf state’s efforts to trace infections and keep the mortality rate low, adding that use of the software was voluntary and users were informed about its use of GPS before downloading it.
“The ‘BeAware’ app was designed for the sole purpose of advancing contact tracing efforts and saving lives,” a government spokeswoman said in emailed comments.
“11,000 individuals have been alerted through the app and prioritised for testing, of which more than 1,500 have tested positive.”
Kuwait did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Countries around the world have rushed to deploy smartphone apps to prevent a resurgence of the virus by tracking down infected people and finding everyone who has been near them, so they can get tested or quarantined.
While apps are faster than traditional contact tracing, carried out by interviewing patients, concerns have been raised about their accuracy and the risks of authorities collecting personal data about millions of people.
In an analysis of 11 countries, including Algeria, France, Iceland, Israel and Tunisia, Amnesty found that Bahrain, Kuwait and Norway had the most “alarming mass surveillance tools” as they frequently uploaded users’ locations to a central server.
Live or near-live tracking of citizens’ GPS coordinates - or precise geographic location - to a central server was unlikely to be necessary and proportionate in the context of a public health response, it said.
The apps also enable authorities to easily link location data to an individual, Amnesty said, as the Gulf states required users to register with a national ID number while Norwegian users had to input a phone number.
Guarnieri said the best apps were voluntary, time-limited and used Bluetooth to log other phones that came close to them without recording their location - rather than GPS.
Apps which store data on individual devices rather than a central server, which could be hacked or leaked, were also preferable, he said.
“Governments rolling out centralised contact tracing apps with real-time location tracking need to go back to the drawing board,” said Guarnieri.
“There are better options available that balance the need to trace the spread of the disease without hoovering up sensitive personal information of millions of people.”
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in a statement that the decision to halt its app and delete all the related data reduced its ability to fight the virus.
“We will as a result weaken an important part of our preparedness against a spread in infection,” it said.
Imogen Parker, head of policy at the Ada Lovelace Institute, a UK-based think-tank, said winning public trust was key as apps needed up to 60% of the population to use them to be effective.
“The debate around contact tracing is often pitted as public health vs privacy, but that’s a false dichotomy,” she said.
“Building a more trustworthy application with technical and legal safeguards, and policy architecture surrounding use, will increase uptake and effectiveness in improving public health.” (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, additional reporting by Ban Barkawi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)