'Add photo' feature on Turkey's virus app sparks alarm

By: AFP      Published: 07:29 PM, 25 Aug, 2020
'Add photo' feature on Turkey's virus app sparks alarm

Turkey's coronavirus tracking app is facing fire from privacy advocates for adding a feature allowing users to report social distancing rule violations, with the option to send photos.

Critics say the function breaches civil liberties and promotes a "culture of denunciation". Turkish officials counter that the measure is needed to save lives and does not violate laws protecting individual rights.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the health ministry's entire pandemic tracking system -- which includes the app -- made "us even stronger against the virus".

In April, the health ministry launched a phone app called "Hayat Eve Sigar" (Life Fits Into Home) that helps people monitor confirmed virus cases, showing the risk levels and infection rates in specific neighbourhoods. 

It also offers information about nearby hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets and public transport stops. One of its latest features, added this week, allows users to report rule violations in places such as restaurants and cafes, with an ultimate goal of helping control the spread of the virus, which has claimed over 6,000 lives in Turkey. 

"Help control the virus by reporting rule violations that you encounter," a message on the app says above an "add photo" function and a line for the corresponding street address.

'Culture of denunciation' 

Critics see the new feature as a threat that exposes Turks to government agencies without their consent and makes people feel unsafe. "This system lacks credibility," said Faruk Cayir, a lawyer and president of Turkey's Alternative Informatics Association on cyber rights and online censorship. 

He said the information stored in the app was being shared with other government agencies, including the interior ministry and even private travel companies. "The health ministry has not clearly said how long it will be storing data. It only said it was limited to the pandemic period. It has not provided a precise deadline," he told AFP. 

Cayir argued that reporting violations with photos "would encourage a culture of denunciation, the examples of which have already been seen in Turkey". Turkey has officially registered almost 260,000 virus infections and 6,139  deaths.

The number of daily new cases went up above 1,000 in early August and has yet to go back down. The health ministry developed the app in cooperation with the Turkey's mobile phone operators and the government's Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK).

Turks are advised to download the app so that security forces are informed when infected people leave their homes in defiance of warnings, with the possibility of criminal prosecution. 

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher, said the pandemic was confronting governments with difficult choices.  

"Governments have an obligation to protect people's health. This is a human rights issue," Gardner told AFP. "It has also been used as an excuse by governments around the world to take away people's rights or increase their own powers."

He said maintaining social distancing rules was important to prevent the spread and protect people's health. "It's much better that the authorities address these issues instead of people taking the law into their own hands," he said. "There should be a way to ensure that people's health is protected and protect people's privacy and security at the same time."

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