LONDON — On May 18, Qatar became the latest country to make downloading a coronavirus contact tracing app mandatory for citizens and residents, raising privacy concerns because the app can access photos, videos, and location data on the user’s phone.
The government launched the app, called Ehteraz — which means “precaution” — in late April, but authorities said this week the app had to be installed when “leaving the house for any reason," starting on May 22.
Qatari health officials have maintained that there is no cause for concern over privacy, saying personal data would be kept for no more than two months before being “deleted forever.”
Developed by Qatar’s Ministry of the Interior, the app asks for permission to access GPS data as well as photos and videos. The app, which pairs with Bluetooth devices, can also prevent phones from sleeping.
It’s unclear why exactly the app needs to access pictures and videos in the phone’s storage, but several Android users have raised the question in the app’s comment section in the Google Play store. “Storage permission [is] required to check the rooted or [jailbroken] device for your security,” the Ministry of the Interior replied to one comment. “We are doing enhancement so always update the application.”
The information gathered by the app is sent to a centralized database; if a person is infected, Qatari authorities use the data to track locations they’ve visited, the government said. Then the app will send messages to other users who might have encountered the infected person, and authorities will give them priority in getting tested for the virus.
Contact tracing apps, which were adopted in countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore early in the pandemic, are now becoming more widely used outside of Asia. Several states in the US have also rolled out contact tracing apps, and the apps have been criticized in the European Union over data privacy.
At least 14 countries are using contact tracing apps, according to research by Privacy International, though most have made them voluntary to use for the majority of residents and citizens. Some countries, like India, have made the apps mandatory in practice despite calling them voluntary. Others, like Singapore, are now weighing whether to make using apps like these mandatory because too few people are downloading them.