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‘Absolutely anonymous and safe’ Russia’s Digital Development Ministry is set to launch a coronavirus contact-tracing app

Source: Meduza
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Meduza sources have revealed that Russia’s Digital Development Ministry is finishing work on a new mobile app designed to combat the spread of COVID-19. Its working name is “Stopcoronavirus. My contacts.” The contact-tracing app, which relies on technologies developed by Apple and Google, is designed to track nearby mobile devices and warn the user if they have been within 10 meters of someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The Russian authorities have also promised not to use the app to collect personal information.

Russia’s Digital Development Ministry is finishing tests on a contact-tracing mobile app aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus. The app will be available on Apple’s App Store and on Google Play in the near future. Sources from two IT companies told Meduza about the app and these reports were confirmed by two additional sources — one from the cabinet and another from the federal headquarters for the fight against the coronavirus.

A video presentation viewed by Meduza refers to the mobile application as “Stopcoronavirus. My Contacts.” According to the presentation, the app works as follows: “The phone scans the surrounding environment within a radius of up to 10 meters. All interactions are recorded anonymously on your device. If another person gets sick, he enters this information into the app and you are notified of a potential risk. The closer the distance and the longer the interaction, the higher the app estimates the risk of infection. The information is anonymous, the identity of the patient isn’t disclosed. The data remains on the device and is automatically deleted after 14 days.”

To prevent false notifications (for example, a user jokingly registering themselves as sick), a person who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus will need to enter a special code in the app, which will send notifications to people who have been in contact with them. Presumably, these codes will be made available when a Russian resident tests positive for COVID-19.

The presentation maintains that the application “takes care of not only your health, but also your personal data, it does not collect or give out any personal information.” Apparently, the app was developed by the Digital Development Ministry in cooperation with the Moscow government and “in partnership with Apple and Google.”

In conversation with Meduza, Digital Development Minister Maksut Shadayev confirmed the fact that there is an app under development, promising that using it will be “absolutely anonymous and safe.” “There’s no registration required — just install and activate it. At the same time, installing the application, as well as sharing information about [getting sick] is a voluntary matter, but the more users who install it, the wider the coverage will be,” Shadayev added. 

The “Stopcoronavirus. My Contacts” app presentation
Vladimir Afonskiy

Two of Meduza’s sources explained that the Russian application is based on Exposure Notifications — a contact-tracing technology that Apple and Good developed jointly and presented in the spring of 2020. Once a user opts into the notification system, it generates a random ID for their iOS or Android device, which is then exchanged with surrounding phones via Bluetooth (in other words, your phone transmits your ID, while collecting the IDs of devices around you). Throughout the day, your device will download and check the random IDs linked to positive COVID-19 cases against its own list. In the event that there is a match, it sends you a notification saying that you’ve been in contact with a coronavirus patient and offers advice on how to proceed. Apple and Google emphasize that this technology does not use GPS, meaning that it doesn’t track users’ locations.

Meduza’s source in the cabinet says that “Stopcoronavirus. My Contacts” is a working title; whether or not it will be the app’s final name remains unknown, but he felt it would be best not to change it, since Russia’s official government site for information about COVID-19 already uses the “Stopcoronavirus” name. “‘Stopcoronavirus’ is a well-developed brand already known to [Russian] citizens. So as not to work on new branding for the application, it would be logical to use the already developed option, [which is] understood by society and linked to the government,” the source explained.

“It’s good that our Digital Development Ministry has taken this path and is integrating with Google and Apple, which are managing the infrastructure,” said Ivan Begtin, one of Russia’s leading experts on open data and the director of the non-profit organization “Information Culture.” According to him, this is one of the “least harmful options in terms of privacy.”

Begtin noted that in most countries installing these kinds of apps is voluntary, however the more people that download the app, the more effective it will be in the fight against COVID-19. On the other hand, he worried that installing the app could become mandatory. “In our country, often formally, everything starts voluntarily, but as our beloved state evolves it gradually becomes compulsory. For example, looking at the number of installations of the ‘Gosuslugi’ [government services] application, a lot of questions arise. In general, it’s no secret that if necessary our government has mechanisms of coercion,” he said.

Apple and Google themselves have declared that the technology they have developed offers privacy protections, Begtin recalled. The companies’ servers only store the random device identifiers, which aren’t linked to the user’s personal data and are regenerated periodically. “However, in practice, everything will depend on whether or not the domestic application is integrated, for example, with the ‘Gosuslugi’ portal,” he noted. According to Meduza’s source in the Russian cabinet, he has heard talk about integrating the contact-tracing app with the government services portal. However, a source from the Digital Development Ministry claimed that the app won’t have any such functions. “The app is completely anonymous, without any connections to ‘Gosuslugi,’ otherwise Apple and Google simply wouldn’t have let it pass during their review,” he maintained. 

Russia is far from the first country to launch a contact-tracing application in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In the last six months, similar mobile apps based on Exposure Notifications technology have appeared all over the world: they’re already available in Latvia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Great Britain, and a dozen other countries.

Some countries, for example, Germany, tried to create their own technology for gathering contact-tracing information, but faced widespread criticism over plans to collect what was perceived as too much data on the movement of citizens and their contacts on government servers. As a result, they were forced to switch to technology from Apple and Google. Both companies later announced plans to ban the use of location tracking in their contact-tracing apps. 

Story by Maria Kolomychenko, Farida Rustamova, and Svetlana Reiter

Translation by Eilish Hart

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