Amnesty International is issuing a warning that some of the new Covid-19 contact tracing apps may not just be an invasion of privacy but potentially put lives at risk. Contact tracing – the process of finding and notifying people who have interacted with an infected person so they can be tested and quarantine– is vital to allowing businesses, educational institutions and governments resume operations that are closer to normal even as the virus continues to spread.
A number of governments are rolling out contact tracing apps that use data collected from individuals’ phones to alert registered users if the come in close proximity to someone who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. Amnesty International security researchers evaluated 11 new apps deployed by countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. They found troubling issues with some of the apps which the human rights organization described as running the gamut from bad to dangerous because they can be used for mass surveillance.
Amnesty International warns of privacy issues
The non-governmental organization (NGO) called out apps from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Norway as being particularly egregious. Amnesty International said that all of the apps effectively surveilled users’ locations in real-time or near real-time, transmitting GPS coordinates to a central server.
Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab, said through the apps, the countries “run roughshod over people’s privacy, with highly invasive surveillance tools which go beyond what is justified to tackle Covid-19.”
In response to the criticism, the Norwegian government said it would stop using the app. Norway is looking to develop a new, less invasive app.
Amnesty International pressed Bahrain and Kuwait to follow Norway’s lead and stop using the apps. The NGO also cited issues with apps from other countries including Qatar. Qatar’s EHTERAZ app can collect live location of all users or particular individuals though that function is not currently activated. A security vulnerability in the Qatar app the leaked personal identifying information (PII) details of one million people was previously identified and fixed.
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Contact tracing is a vital tool
With many countries easing Covid-19 stay at home restrictions and reopening shuttered businesses, contact tracing is considered a key element in the next stage of the fight against the virus.
A cross-section of vendors including Microsoft and a coalition spearheaded by Apple and Google are rolling out contact tracing apps that use data collected from individuals’ phones to alert registered users if they have come in close proximity to someone who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. Vendors say the data can be anonymized.