Claims of police misconduct and data tracking dog the implementation of Azerbaijan’s e-Tabib anti-COVID application.
Vusala Mammadova, a presenter at Azerbaijani television channel ITV tested positive for COVID-19 in late November. What happened next, she said, made her feel more like a criminal than a patient.
The same day her tests results came back she received an SMS. ‘You have Covid! If you leave home, you will carry criminal responsibility!’, she quoted the message as reading.
Then she started receiving phone calls from different numbers. She reports that the people on the other end did not identify themselves and asked her for the numbers of her and her immediate family's government IDs.
Her ordeal did not end there.
‘Then one day, while I was struggling with the virus in my bed, the e-Tabib application sent me a notification, ‘You have left the quarantine address. You are required to return!’, she wrote. She said had never her home during her illness.
Mammadova’s experience with the e-Tabib COVID-19 application appears to be far from unique, since the system’s implementation on 14 December, there have been numerous complaints that not only is the system not working as intended but that it is violating user’s rights.
From 14 December to 18 January a strict quarantine regime was instituted by the Azerbaijani authorities. If a resident wanted to leave their home, they had to send an SMS message to a special number and the police would then either grant or deny permission to leave. If permission is granted, the person can leave their home for a maximum of three hours. The only valid reasons for requesting permission to leave home are to shop for groceries or medicine or to visit a doctor.
The e-Tabib mobile phone application has been introduced to track the location of people who have been infected with COVID-19 and to prevent the virus’ spread by sending a message notification to those who are likely to have been exposed. It is part of a government strategy to limit the spread of the coronavirus through contact tracing and the rapid identification and isolation of suspected cases.
An anonymous patient that tested positive for the virus told OC Media that at the end of their 14-day quarantine period they received a call from someone who introduced himself as a local police officer. The officer then proceeded to ask them personal information, including their ID number, which he said he did to register them in a database. When they asked him what purposes this registration served, he declined to say. According to the patient, he only said that it was a 'personal matter' and 'not a telephone conversation’.
The officer then proceeded to ask questions of the patient about a vehicle he said they owned — the patient told OC Media they do not own a car, and that they said so to the officer.
‘And then he said that they saw me in the car yesterday afternoon. I replied that I was very sick. Today is my last day [of quarantine]. How can that be?’. The officer then dropped the matter, stating only that he would be in touch again.
A rights violation
When the e-Tabib application was launched, the terms and conditions stated that personal information could be transferred to a third party. Independent experts assessed this as a violation of the Constitution of Azerbaijan and the European Convention on Human Rights.
After this became a topic of heated discussion on social media, the final text of the agreement was changed, eventually stating that personal information can be transferred to a third party only if necessary, within the relevant legal restrictions.
Internet technology specialist Vahid Gasimov told Radio Liberty that regardless of what is written in the contract, there is a risk of personal data being seized. He warned that when downloading the e-Tabib application, the user’s identity, their contact list, the websites they visit, as well as photos, videos, and personal correspondence may fall into the hands of third parties.
Fuad Niftaliyev, the program manager of the e-Tabib application, has disagreed with such allegations and has previously stated that such statements express an unwarranted phobia of surveillance.
He also said that tracking whom a person comes into contact with is the ‘whole point’ of the application.