Application “Covtakt” for monitoring contacts infected with the Covid-19 virus, soon in Serbia as well

According to the announcements of the competent authorities, a new mobile application under the working name “Covtakt”, which is used by an increasing number of countries around the world, will soon be launched in Serbia as well. It is intended to warn people who have been in risky contact with people infected with the Covid-19 virus. As planned, Institute of Public Health of Serbia”Dr Milan Jovanovic Batut”will establish and use a software solution for covtakt mobile devices, with the support of the government’s information technology office and the Republic Health Insurance Fund. It was announced that the application should be put into use in Serbia in August. The most important issues associated with the topic are certainly the security of user privacy (to whom and what data will be available?) and the efficiency in use.

How it works?

The working principle is based on Bluetooth technology, which will be used to measure and record the distance between the users of the application and the duration of the contact. Based on the signal strength, the distance between the two people is estimated. Then, if it turns out that there was a risky contact, the user will be informed that he should be in self-isolation and be tested.

The idea is for everything to be in accordance with the Law on Personal Data Protection (“Official Gazette of RS”, No. 87/2018), and the only data that could be recorded is a unique user ID that everyone will be able to take from a doctor and with which the application is activated. GPS locations will not be recorded, while the contact data can be stored in two ways – centralized, when stored in a single database managed by the competent authority, and decentralized, when data is stored only in the user’s phone. It has not yet been decided which approach will be applied in Serbia, although, with a centralized approachthe issue of abuse in the field of application of the Law on Personal Data Protection would have been opened.

Assessment of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection

Representatives of the Commissioner stated that for the purpose of processing of health data it is necessary to have an adequate legal basis based on the Law on Personal Data Protection, then determine the specific and justified purpose of processing, determine who is the controller, who are other participants in data processing and what role they have, while their relationship should be regulated by a binding legal act. Also, it is necessary to determine the way in which the accuracy of data and the time period of their storage will be insured.

Application in other countries of the world

Applications for tracking contacts infected with the Covid-19 virus are used all over the world, but they differ greatly in terms of the data they collect, the manner and time period of their storage, as well as the possibility of misuse of personal data.

How does the contact tracking system work in China?

The use of mobile phone tracking systems is most developed and widespread in China, where it is used by almost two billion people, according to the following principle: a green card means that you are not infected, a yellow card indicates that the user has been in contact with an infected person and should be in self-isolation, while red indicates that the user has symptoms of the virus. Reading data from mobile phones is done more constantly, in public places such as shops, malls, parks, restaurants and the like.

How does the application work in Northern Macedonia?

In Northern Macedonia, the application has decentralized access, which means that user data is stored only on the phone. If a citizen finds out that he is positive for the Covid-19 virus, he sends the data on his contacts to the central database of the Ministry, after which the contacts to be tested are notified. The secrecy of identity of the infected person is implied.

In Germany, there is a problem with the application’s functions

The contact tracking application, similar to the one planned in Serbia, is used in Germany. Data exchange is performed via Bluetooth, but the location of the user is not recorded. The competent authorities appealed to the citizens to download the application, because sporadic use will not achieve the ultimate goal and efficiency. It is currently used by 16 million people out of a total population of 83 million. However, it has been shown in practice that the application has flaws and does not work on all types of mobile phones.

Problems in practice

An analysis by the Centre for European Studies on applications used to monitor the contacts of infected people notes that the Bluetooth model is not “without flaws, especially in terms of efficiency and accuracy of Bluetooth technology, as well as problems of low user interest and lack of public confidence in government measures.”. In order for such a project to have a purpose, it is necessary that higherthe percentage of the population use the application, about 60%. If we take into account that the use of Bluetooth increases the battery consumption, we can expect a lack of interest of citizens to download the application. To this should be added the influence of general trust in the competent authorities, ie. to the current approach in a crisis situation caused by the Covid-19 virus. “It is very likely that in countries with a high level of trust in public authorities and institutions, the use of such applications will be higher. Surveys in such countries have shown a surprising degree of willingness of people to download such an application or keep it on the phone if the mobile operator pre-installs them automatically. However, even in these countries, respondents worry that the government would use them to increase surveillance after an epidemic or that their phones “could be hacked,”” according to the Centre’s analysis.

Amnesty International recently stated that 11 countries in the world use the application for tracking contacts, which seriously violate the privacy of citizens because they are based on GPS data. Norway, Kuwait and Bahrain used applications that served as mechanisms for mass surveillance of the population, exceeding their purpose – to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Following this report, Norway withdrew its application