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Russia's geolocation-based coronavirus tracker could face regulatory hurdles

Source: Kommersant

Activating any system that can use geolocation data to track people who have come into contact with patients who test positive for coronavirus would require individuals’ direct consent or the declaration of a national state of emergency, says a new report by the newspaper Kommersant. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin instructed Russia’s Communications Ministry to build a platform that would draw on specific individuals’ geolocation data retrieved from telecommunications companies. Mishustin ordered officials to find a way to notify those who may have come into contact with those infected with the coronavirus.

According to Sergey Izraylit (the Skolkovo Foundation’s director of planning and development department and a representative of the Digital Economy Regulation Center), citizens’ cellular geolocation data and medical information are protected by Russia’s Constitution and privacy laws. Telecommunications companies can only surrender this data in extraordinary circumstances, such as criminal investigations or counterterrorism operations.

There may be other exceptions to these privacy protections, however. Alexandra Orekhovich, the legal affairs director of the Internet Initiatives Development Fund, told Kommersant that Russian law allows the authorities to limit civil rights and freedoms if deemed necessary to protect the health, rights, and interests of others or to defend the security of the state.

Karen Kazaryan, the chief analyst at the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, argues that it would require the declaration of a national emergency to permit the mass transfer of patients’ geolocation data. 

The Russian mobile phone operator MegaFon told Kommersant that the system envisaged by Prime Minister Mishustin is feasible, but it would require “regulatory changes” in Russia. The telecoms VimpelCom says it is “studying” the initiative. Russia’s other biggest phone companies, MTS and Tele2, declined to comment.

Israel’s Health Ministry recently launched a mobile app called “Hamagen” that tracks a user’s whereabouts and then compares them to the known movements of confirmed COVID-19 cases, to check if their paths have overlapped in the previous two weeks. Officials in China, Iran, and Belgium have developed similar software.

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