Russia's virus-tracking app has citizens seeing red

I’ve been among those expressing concerns over the development of “contact tracing” databases here in the United States and the implications that could have in terms of both privacy and potential hacking. I’ll also confess that I’ve had some uneasy feelings over outfits like Google monitoring your social distancing practices. But if you ever want to feel a little bit better about how these things are being handled in the United States, just check out what the Russians have to put up with. If you come down with any symptoms of COVID-19 in Moscow, you are ordered to download and install a new app for your phone called Social Monitoring. It’s a government tracking tool that will make sure you remain in self-quarantine at home. And a failure to comply has consequences. (Associated Press)

When nurse Maria Alexeyeva caught coronavirus at work, she isolated herself at home and followed the rules set down by Moscow authorities: She checked in with doctors regularly, didn’t leave her apartment and downloaded a smartphone app required by the city to keep tabs on quarantined patients.

The Social Monitoring app tracks users via GPS and sends them random notifications demanding a selfie to prove they’re still at home. If it detects they’ve left home or they fail to provide a photo, they face a fine of about $56 each time.

But soon the app became a nightmare for Alexeyeva. It crashed when she tried to take a photo. Weak with illness, she struggled with the software for days, sometimes on hold for hours with technical support. And when her quarantine ended, she discovered she had accumulated 11 fines totaling $620.

The app not only monitors your location but periodically instructs you to take a selfie and upload it to show that you’re still in your home. Every time you show up in the wrong location or fail to provide a picture, you get hit with a fine. In the case of the nurse featured in the excerpt above, her total fines after two weeks added up to more than her entire monthly salary. And a failure to pay brings even more penalties.

The use of this app would be disturbing enough even if it functioned properly. But according to many witnesses contacted by the AP, it doesn’t. Sometimes the tool for uploading the pictures fails, but the app doesn’t provide an error message saying that it didn’t go through. At other times, the app will demand a picture in the middle of the night when the user is asleep and their phone is off. Too bad. You still get hit with a fine.

One patient failed to install the app because nobody at the hospital told her she had to do it. Within a week she had run up hundreds of dollars in fines, first for not installing it and then because the system somehow determined that she wasn’t at home even without the app on her phone. (At least to her knowledge.) Another user who claims to have managed to follow all of the directions without error was hit with four fines and the app never once sent a message that he was out of compliance.

All in all, the fines have added up to more than $3 million from tens of thousands of Moscow residents. There is an appeal system in place if you disagree, but almost nobody has gotten it to work to the point where their fines were canceled.

Welcome to Russia. Some of us in the United States tend to complain about the authoritarian impulses of our elected leaders here, myself included. But sometimes we should probably remind ourselves that there are real authoritarian governments out there and they put our worst officials to shame when it comes to such practices. To quote Yakov Smirnoff, what a country.

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