Turkey’s Coronavirus Tracking App Facing Fire From Privacy

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Turkey’s coronavirus tracking app faces fire from privacy advocates to add a feature that allows users to report breaches of social distancing laws, with the option of sending photos.

Critics say that the function violates civil freedoms and promotes a “culture of denunciation.”

Turkish officials address the need for the initiative to save lives and do not infringe laws that protect individual rights.

The communications director of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, said the whole pandemic monitoring network of the Ministry of Health — which includes the app — made “us even stronger against the virus.”

In April, the health ministry released a phone app named “Hayat Eve Sigar” (Life Fits Into Home), which lets people track reported cases of viruses, showing the levels of risk and rates of infection in different neighborhoods.

It also provides information on nearby hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets and bus stops.

One of its new features, introduced this week, allows users to report breaches of the law in places like restaurants and cafes, with the ultimate goal of helping contain the spread of the virus, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives in Turkey.

Help monitor the virus by reporting breaches of the rule you are encountering,” a message on the app says above a “add photo” feature and a line for the respective street address.

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— ‘Culture of reproach’ — 

Critics see the new feature as a danger that reveals Turks without their permission to government agencies, and makes people feel unsafe.

“This program lacks legitimacy,” said Faruk Cayir, an online surveillance and cyber rights lawyer and founder of the Alternative Informatics Association of Turkey.

He said the information stored in the app was shared with other government agencies, including the Ministry of the Interior and even private travel firms.

“The Ministry of Health has not clearly stated how long data will be stored. It merely said it was limited to the pandemic period. It did not provide a precise deadline,” he told AFP.

Cayir argued that reporting violations with photographs would “encourage a culture of denunciation that has already been seen in Turkey.”

Turkey has had nearly 260,000 virus infections and 6,139 deaths officially recorded.

In early August, the number of daily new cases soared above 1,000, and has yet to go down.

In collaboration with the mobile phone operators of Turkey and the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) of the Government, the health ministry created the device.

Turks are urged to download the app to alert security forces when infected persons leave their homes in violation of warnings, with the risk of prosecution.

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Andrew Gardner, the Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, said the pandemic confronted governments with difficult choices.

“Governments have an duty to protect the health of people, which is a matter of human rights,” Gardner told AFP.

“Governments around the world have also used this as an excuse to take away the rights of the people or raise their own powers.”

He said it was important to maintain social distancing rules to prevent the spread and protect the health of individuals.

“Instead of people taking the law into their own hands, it is much better that the authorities address these issues,” he said.

“There should be a way of ensuring that people ‘s safety is covered, and at the same time preserving the privacy and protection of individuals.”

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