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Regular selfies, trackers and phone-based “electronic fence”: How govts to control coronavirus quarantined

A supporter takes a selfie with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Internet speeds in the country lag the region’s. Photo: AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

WARSAW, Mar 23, 2020, The Business Insider. The Polish government has introduced a new app that will require coronavirus patients to take selfies to prove they’re quarantining properly. Per France 24, the “Home Quarantine” app is intended for people quarantining for 14 days after returning from abroad. People who’ve downloaded the app register a selfie with the app, then periodically receive requests for geo-located selfies. If they fail to comply, the police will be alerted, The Business Insider reported.

“People in quarantine have a choice: either receive unexpected visits from the police, or download this app,” a spokesman for Poland’s Digital Ministry told the AFP. If a user fails to respond to a request within 20 minutes police will be notified.

France 24 reported that police in Poland fined someone for breaking quarantine 500 zloty ($116) on Friday.

British journalist Jakub Krupa tweeted that accounts are being automatically created for suspected quarantine patients.

Krupa tweeted that the purpose of the app isn’t solely to punish people breaking quarantine, saying it also “helps to connect with the social services or request help with urgent supplies.”

According to Poland’s Digital Ministry the app is available to download on Google Play and the App Store.

Although demanding selfies is unique, Poland is not the only country to introduce unusual and invasive measures using people’s phones to contain and control the spread of the coronavirus.

Earlier Singapore has asked citizens to download an app which uses Bluetooth to track whether they’ve been near anyone diagnosed with the virus. A contact-tracing smartphone app has been launched to allow the local authorities to quickly track people who have been exposed to confirmed coronavirus cases. Dubbed TraceTogether, the app is able to identify people who have been in close proximity – within 2m for at least 30 minutes – to coronavirus patients using wireless Bluetooth technology, said its developers, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and the Ministry of Health (MOH), on Friday (Mar 20), according to The Straits Times.

“This is especially useful in cases where the infected persons do not know everyone whom they had been in close proximity with for an extended duration,” said its developers. While use of the app is not compulsory, those who use it have to turn on the Bluetooth settings in their phones for tracing to be done. They also need to enable push notifications and location permissions in the app, which is available on the Apple App Store or the Google Play store.

Should one of these users be infected, MOH will be able to quickly find out which other users they have been in close contact with, allowing for easier identification of potential cases and helping to curb the spread of the coronavirus here.

On its website, TraceTogether’s developers said the app is meant to complement current contact-tracing methods and allow for the identification of people who were in close proximity with an infected person more efficiently. There is currently no target for the number of users for the app.

In a release on Friday, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) said users have to give explicit consent to participate in TraceTogether, and for their mobile number and data to be used for contact tracing.

“When requested by MOH, users can send their TraceTogether logs to facilitate the contact tracing process. Up to that point, the authorities, including MOH and GovTech, have no knowledge of the user’s TraceTogether data,” said SNDGO.

Official contact tracers will provide a code that users can match with a corresponding verification code on their app. Once authenticated, users will be given a PIN that allows submission of logs when entered.

Official contact tracers will also not ask for any personal financial details or request for the transfer of money over the phone.

When contacted by contact tracers, that is the point that users will be asked to share their data logs. If they refuse, they may be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act.

Last Friday (Mar 20) Taiwan, which has won global praise for its effective action against the coronavirus, is rolling out a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes, New York Post reported.

Governments around the world are combining technology and human efforts to enforce quarantines that require people who have been exposed to the virus to stay in their homes, but Taiwan’s system is believed to be the first to use mobile phone tracking for that purpose.

“The goal is to stop people from running around and spreading the infection,” said Jyan Hong-wei, head of Taiwan’s Department of Cyber Security, who leads efforts to work with telecom carriers to combat the virus.

The system monitors phone signals to alert police and local officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes.

Officials also call twice a day to ensure people don’t avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

Many Asian countries are on a war footing to prevent further spread after a surge of infections among people traveling from other countries, especially Europe.

In Hong Kong, location-tracking wristbands are given to those put under quarantine. In Singapore, the government uses text messages to contact people, who must click on a link to prove they are at home.

Thailand has rolled out a mobile app that anyone arriving at an airport must download to help monitor where they have been in the event that they test positive for the virus. Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, this week also launched a mobile app to help track cases and it could be used to enforce quarantines.

Other countries, including South Korea and Israel, are using satellite-based phone tracking for so-called contact tracing to see where infected individuals might have passed SARS-CoV-2 to others. China has used a wide range of methods to monitor the health and whereabouts of people and enforce restrictions on movement.

Taiwan’s electronic fence has drawn some complaints for its intrusiveness.

“It’s creepy that the government is teaming up with telecommunications companies to track our phones,” said a flight attendant in Taipei who was put under 14-day quarantine after returning from Europe in mid-March.

The woman, who identified herself as Xiaomei, said she was scolded by a local administrator after failing to pick up a check-in phone call in the morning when she was asleep.

“They said the police will come to me if I missed another phone call,” she said. “I’m treated like a prisoner.”

Quarantine violators can be fined up to T$1 million ($32,955).

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