Coronavirus tracing app stirs rare privacy backlash in Qatar

Qatar has made it mandatory for all citizens and legal residents to install the app on their phones. Noncompliance might attract huge fines. (AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2020

Coronavirus tracing app stirs rare privacy backlash in Qatar

  • Version forces Android users to permit access to their picture and video galleries

DOHA: Privacy concerns over Qatar’s coronavirus contact tracing app, a tool that is mandatory on pain of prison, have prompted a rare backlash and forced officials to offer reassurance and concessions.

Like other governments around the world, Qatar has turned to mobile phones to trace people’s movements and track who they come into contact with, allowing officials to monitor coronavirus infections and alert people at risk of contagion.

The apps use Bluetooth radio signals to “ping” nearby devices, which can be contacted subsequently if a user they have been near develops symptoms or tests positive, but the resultant unprecedented access to users’ location data has prompted fears about state surveillance.

Qatar’s version goes considerably further — it forces Android users to permit access to their picture and video galleries, while also allowing the app to make unprompted calls.

“I can’t understand why it needs all these permissions,” wrote Ala’a on a Facebook group popular with Doha’s large expat community — one of several such forums peppered with concerns over the app.

Justin Martin, a journalism professor based in Qatar, warned authorities in a tweet not to “erode” trust by enforcing “an app with such alarming permissions.”

The government launched the “Ehteraz” app, meaning “precaution,” in April and on Friday it became mandatory for all citizens and legal residents to install it on their phones.

Noncompliance is punishable by up to three years in jail — the same term as for failing to wear a mask in public — in a state battling one of the world’s highest per capita infection rates.

Almost 44,000 of Qatar’s 2.75 million people have tested positive for the respiratory disease — 1.6 percent of the population — and 23 people have died. Security forces manned checkpoints across Qatar on Sunday to ensure use of the app, local media reported, alongside checking for use of masks.

Criticism of the government is rare in Qatar and laws prohibit disrespect toward officials. However, officials have said that the law on the app will be enforced with “understanding.”

The app’s simple interface displays colored bar-codes containing the user’s ID number — green for healthy, red for COVID-19 positive and yellow for quarantined cases. Grey indicates suspected cases or those who have come into contact with infected individuals.

Mohamed bin Hamad Al-Thani, a director at Qatar’s Health Ministry, said that data gathered is “completely confidential.”

“There will be an update for the Ehteraz app to address the issues of concern and further improve its efficiency,” he added in an interview on state television on Thursday.

A new version of the software was duly released for Apple and Android on Sunday, promising “minor bug fixes,” but without indicating that the invasive aspects had been removed.

The app was introduced just as authorities across the Muslim world warned that gatherings during Ramadan and the Eid Al-Fitr festival  could lead to a surge of infections.

“There are two key concerns ... with the app,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Hiba Zayadin.

It “is highly invasive, with a range of permissions allowing the government access to things that are not needed for the purpose of contact tracing, permissions that are unnecessary and present a concerning invasion of privacy.” But also “many migrant workers in the country don’t have compatible phones that would allow them to download the app and comply.”

Online reviews have also complained that the app drains battery power and cannot be installed on older iPhone handsets. Some have looked for ways around the policy. “People are spending money and waiting in queues just to get burner phones to protect their privacy,” wrote expat engineer Janko on one forum, referring to cheap handsets that could subsequently be disposed of. There have been reports of a few users being wrongly classified as “quarantined” or “suspected cases.”

“There’s no need for photo access and other things. But it could be a good tool. It is a good way to prioritize whom to test,” technology lawyer Rahul Matthan said. But “to work, they need a large number of people to use it. If people are dissuaded because of the app’s overreach, then that would be a worry.”


Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

Updated 07 July 2020

Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

  • Turkey ‘challenging’ international norms by breaking arms embargo on Libya, invading northern Syria, claims analyst

JEDDAH: Increasing tensions between France and Turkey were posing a threat to the cohesion of the NATO alliance, experts have warned.

Paris’ recent decision to suspend its involvement in the NATO Sea Guardian maritime security operation in the eastern Mediterranean following an incident between a French frigate and Turkish vessels, has highlighted the organization’s difficulties in maintaining order and harmony among its members.

Months of escalating dispute between France and Turkey came to a head on June 10, when Paris claimed that its La Fayette-class Frigate Courbet was targeted three times by Turkish Navy fire control radars while it was trying to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian cargo ship suspected of trafficking arms to Libya.

The cargo ship was under the escort of three Turkish vessels, but Ankara denied harassing the Courbet and demanded an apology from France for disclosing “improper information,” saying the ship in question had been carrying humanitarian aid.

The incident resulted in France pulling out of the NATO operation, partly aimed at enforcing a UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya, and accusing Turkey of importing extremists to Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO. We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”

The classified report on the Courbet incident is expected to be discussed soon by member states of the alliance.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has also angered some NATO members over concerns it could undermine Western defense systems and led to Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance’s F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, told Arab News: “NATO faces increasing challenges from its member state Turkey which behaves contrary to NATO’s mission and values.

“Turkey’s government has begun to violate international norms by breaking an arms embargo on the Libyan conflict and invading northern Syria, backing extremist groups, and bombing northern Iraq.

“Ankara has tried to strong-arm NATO into supporting it through threats to hold up a Baltic defense plan and also through threatening and insulting other NATO members.

“Turkey insinuated to the US that Turkey would brush US forces aside in Syria in 2019 if the US didn’t leave, it has escalated conflicts rather than reducing them, and threatened to send refugees to Greece while staking counter claims to the Mediterranean against Greek claims,” he added.

Frantzman pointed out that the controversy with France was a byproduct of this.

“NATO increasingly looks like it is being called upon to appease Ankara’s monthly crises that involve new military operations in several countries. Once a key and helpful ally of NATO, Turkey looks increasingly like it seeks to exploit its NATO membership, using it as a cover for military operations that undermine human rights, democracy, and international norms,” he said.

Turkey is seen as an important and strategic member of the military alliance. On its website, NATO says that all the organization’s decisions are made by consensus, following discussions and consultations among members. “When a ‘NATO decision’ is announced, it is therefore the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the alliance.”

However, recent disagreements within NATO led Macron to say that the alliance was “suffering brain death” over Turkey’s cross-border military offensive into northern Syria last year.

On Turkey’s unilateral behavior, Frantzman said: “This is part of a global rising authoritarian agenda but appears to be counter to the NATO mission that once ostensibly was about defending Western democracies from the Soviet totalitarian threat.

“This calls into question the overall NATO mission and whether NATO is now enabling Ankara’s authoritarian trend. NATO countries are generally afraid to challenge Turkey, thinking that without Turkey and with a US disinterested in global commitments, NATO would become a European club with an unclear future. For Russia that is good news as it supplies S-400 systems to Turkey, further eroding NATO,” he added.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, felt NATO would be able to manage the spat between France and Turkey.

“Libya isn’t really a NATO issue. It is out of the area for the alliance. I see this more as a bilateral dispute between two rival powers in the Mediterranean.

“What I worry more about is how NATO members, including both Turkey and France, are letting these bilateral squabbles seep into the North Atlantic Council. They should keep their fights to themselves.”