A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 5, 2020

Why It's So Hard To Launch A Quarantine Enforcement App

There's a reason why tech professionals are paid a lot of money. These apps are not easy to design well.

Governments attempting to monitor entire populations face functional challenges as well as public resistance to the often unlimited nature of the data collection and the time periods over which it may be in use and the data held. JL

Marc Scott and Zosia Wanat report in Politico:

"It's not working well. On Google's app store, it's not rated very highly." Poland was one of the first Western countries to roll out a smartphone app that collects personal information, including people's location and digital photos to combat the pandemic. Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Spain will push ahead with their own apps. The U.S. government is using mobile advertising data. Eight EU countries are working jointly on an app. "The terms and conditions aren't just. All the data will stay with the government for six years."
Matylda Dobrowolska followed quarantine orders to the letter when she returned to Warsaw from a two-week vacation in Mexico.
But there was one thing the 25-year-old Pole would not do — download a government-backed smartphone app designed to track her movements during the 14-day period of isolation.
"The terms and conditions aren't just. All the data will stay with the government for six years," said Dobrowolska, who has not contracted the virus and still has just under a week to go before she can go outside. "I don't think that's right."
Now, Dobrowolska and everyone else in Poland under quarantine will not have a choice.
The country's government has made the app — which involves people uploading selfies when prompted so that officials can pinpoint their exact locations — mandatory for anyone potentially infected with the coronavirus. So far, just over 2,400 Poles have been infected and fewer than 50 people have died, according to estimates from Johns Hopkins University, although those figures continue to rise.
Screenshot from the Polish government-backed smartphone app.
Poland was one of the first Western countries to roll out a smartphone app that collects reams of personal information, including people's location and digital photos, in its fight to combat the pandemic. It will not be the last. With the death count increasing by the day, the digital tracker provides a possible playbook for other projects across the European Union and the United States in the coming weeks.
Already, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and parts of Spain have signaled they will push ahead with their own apps, while U.S. government agencies are using mobile advertising data to track the spread of the virus. Scientists in eight EU countries are also working jointly on code for an app that analyzes Bluetooth signals from people's smartphones to see with whom they have come in contact in recent weeks.
Governments are taking different approaches. Some are asking people to download an app voluntarily, while others are sourcing smartphone tracking data from mobile service providers. But the Polish project represents the most advanced effort yet to enforce a mandatory check-up via app anywhere in the EU or North America.
As officials around the world struggle to contain the coronavirus, they're increasingly turning to the online surveillance first trialed across Asia to track people's movements, often in real time. That has raised questions about privacy — including when the tracking will be switched off.
"We need an independent state figure that's not the government who can guarantee this data will eventually be deleted," said Arnoldo Frigessi, a professor at the University of Oslo who's helping the Norwegian government develop its own coronavirus app that is expected to be released in the coming weeks. "We need to ask the questions: When will this stop, and who will get to decide?"
So far, politicians, scientists and others involved in projects across Europe and the U.S. say privacy standards will be upheld. Regulators in several countries have also given their blessings to certain efforts, citing public health concerns.
Government officials and researchers across Europe and the U.S. also told POLITICO that there was a growing need to access smartphones' GPS location data and potentially bluetooth signals to track the spread of COVID-19. Currently, governments and the European Commission are relying on anonymized mobile phone data that does not offer sufficient granularity on individuals' exact movements.
"The police won’t have to monitor the places of quarantine," said Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, when announcing the country's coronavirus app would become mandatory. "We will know if people are following the rules."

First Poland, then the world

To see what awaits other parts of the Western world when similar smartphone apps are eventually released, POLITICO talked to 11 Polish citizens about the country's tracking system, which has been downloaded by more than 90,000 people, according to government figures.
Each person installed the app on receiving a text message after they notified officials that they had either contracted the virus or had returned from abroad. The service, which shared people's data with a number of government agencies and the police, required them to upload a selfie to the app within a 20-minute window after receiving a text message. The tracking system then checked if they had remained indoors, based on their smartphone's GPS location data.
Since the app was released in mid-March people's experiences have varied, with many willing to give up their personal information to help reduce the number of overall infections. Most said the app is prone to failure, not a surprise as the Polish government created it in just three days based on an out-of-the-box service offered by a third-party developer.
Still, only two people who spoke to POLITICO had refused outright to download the app, although others questioned how the government could order the elderly and others with limited access to smartphones to participate. A government spokesperson said that exemptions would be made for those who did not have internet access or do not own a smartphone.
Under Polish law, people who break the quarantine rules face fines of upto €6,550, but it remains unclear how Warsaw can force people to download the app.
Poles' experiences in recent weeks highlight how creating such systems — often with little time to check for bugs and create security protections — may also prove difficult for other governments.
Maciej Putniorz, a 28-year-old from Krakow, downloaded the app soon after returning home from abroad just before Poland went into full lockdown. Despite receiving up to three text messages per day asking him to upload a photograph, he said he was mostly willing to give up his data because he was already sharing more personal information with other apps like Facebook.
"I know the data may be collected, but we are in such a hard time right now, this isn't a problem for me," he added a day before he officially finished his two-week quarantine period.
When Putniorz punched in his cellphone number into the app, other personal details like his address and government identification had already been uploaded, likely from official databases, he said.
Still, Putniorz's experience has not been straightforward. Even though he uploaded selfies on a daily basis, he also received almost daily visits from the police to check he was staying indoors — something the app was supposed to make redundant. A government spokesperson said that police would still check on those in quarantine even if they were using the app.
Łukasz Waliłko also had daily police visits since his return to Krakow from London in early March.
After downloading the app, Waliłko said he had struggled to upload photos as either the digital service froze or it failed to store his image in the government database. Often, the 30-year-old got a text message telling him he had 20 minutes to confirm his location, only to find the app said he had less time to meet the deadline once he had logged in.
"It's not working so well," said Waliłko, who has tested negative for COVID-19. "When I checked the app's rating on Google's app store, it's not rated very highly."
More troubles likely lie ahead, especially as many locals finish their two-week quarantines.
Waliłko has just finished his government-imposed isolation, and was told by the police — during their daily visit to his house— that he is now free to leave. But only hours after his all-clear, the Pole received another text message from authorities, ordering him to upload another selfie as if he was still potentially infected.
"I deleted the app straight away," he said. "The police told me I was in the all clear, but the app said I still had to confirm my location."


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