Russia plans to use technology to track coronavirus patients

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Russia will begin monitoring the movements of coronavirus patients, and warn anyone in contact with them of the need to self-isolate. We explain how this will work, and whether it violates citizens’ rights.


What’s the plan?

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin instructed the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media to create a system for tracking people who have had contact with coronavirus patients, who will then receive a text message with instructions to self-isolate. As per the directive, the system should be up and running by March 27, 2020. 

How will it work?

The system will monitor people’s movements as follows:

• Cellular operators will provide location data about the infected person’s mobile phone.

• Based on this data, the system will trace the movements of the individual prior to being quarantined.

• The system will identify all mobile phone users who were in the immediate vicinity of the infected person, and send automatic messages telling them to self-isolate for 14 days.

• All information about potential infections will be forwarded to regional crisis units.

Is it even possible?

From a technical viewpoint, it is possible to create such a system, Kommersant was informed by Russian mobile operator Megafon. A similar solution is used, for example, by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations to warn people about emergencies.

“However, the implementation mechanism proposed by the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media is not yet fully understood, and may require changes in the field of legislation,” believes MegaFon.

An employee at another Russian mobile operator explained anonymously that it is possible to track users in densely built-up areas to an accuracy of around 50 meters. But in villages and rural settlements, the error margin is far higher. 

Is it even legal?

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the tracking system does not violate citizens’ rights.

This view is partially supported by a lawyer at the human rights organization Agora, who considers tracking the movement of citizens to be legal, but only if patients consent to it. In case of refusal, a court order will have to be obtained under a search operation or criminal case.

Tracking is also unlawful if the geodata is tied to the name, phone number, or address of the individual in question, and if special teams are dispatched to the location. This would constitute an invasion of privacy, the lawyer argues.

It’s already happening

On March 24, the Telegram channel Mash published a map of the distribution of coronavirus in Moscow. It shows the addresses of all buildings from where infected persons were taken to the hospital.

“Why does no one care that we have loved ones and private lives? No one asked me for permission to publish my address on social networks. I really don’t want my mother to be harassed or ostracized. I will be getting in touch with human rights organizations,” stated Maria Mukhina, whose address is on the list.

In response to such complaints, on March 19 Agora set up a legal aid center to deal with coronavirus-related matters.

“By March 23, more than a hundred people had contacted the center,” wrote Agora head Pavel Chikov on his Facebook page. In his view, the most urgent issues are forced hospitalization and the impossibility of obtaining a certificate about coronavirus test results.

In addition, people complain about the ban on entry into Russia even for temporary residence permit holders, and about firms refusing to refund canceled tours and flights.

“The legal aid center also receives queries related to sick leave, home working, and temporary downtime. Agora’s lawyers advise everyone who reaches out,” wrote Chikov.

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