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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Ehteraz: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

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By Sana Hussain and Sahar ElKabbash

illustration: iStockPhoto

On May 18, 2020, the government introduced extra precautionary measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. The first measure on the list mandated all citizens and residents to download the ‘Ehteraz’ application on their phones if they are to leave their homes.

Ehteraz is a contact-tracing app launched by the ministry of interior; these apps typically use two main technologies to detect the spread of infection: Bluetooth and location services. The Bluetooth technology allows for the application to detect other people that you have come in contact with (within the range of 33 feet or 10 meters) by collecting their Bluetooth keys and storing them on a database. If the person has tested positive, you are sent a notification that tells you that you have recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and must self-isolate. The authorities also receive this information and call you in, to get tested and provide you with other necessary information.

Using location technology, the application can track where you have been in the past few days and will let you know if anyone in that area has tested positive. Again, the authorities will be given this information, and they can contact you, if necessary. However, this only works if the application has been downloaded on phones.

Service providers Ooredoo and Vodafone have urged their users to download the application by sending them messages. To incentivise the downloading of the application, internet use, while downloading and using the app, has been made free of charge by both service providers.

A screenshot of a message sent by Ooredoo reminding customers to download the Ehteraz app

According to Anthony Wallace, a postgraduate student in Information Security Engineering, using technology to contact-trace in a particularly granular way, is unsettling to some because of privacy concerns. Several citizens and residents have raised such concerns about the application’s data privacy and terms and conditions. When the application is first opened, the terms and conditions state that the app is owned by the “State of Qatar and relevant government entities.” It also states that such entities have the right to “vary, amend or modify or impose new conditions without any notification.” Finally, it says that if a user continues to use the application, their continued use will be considered an acceptance of the changes in terms and conditions.

A Screenshot of Ehteraz’s Terms & Conditions page

Furthermore, there has been some confusion due to the differences in the permissions required on Android and iOS phones. iOS users are only required to grant access to location, bluetooth, and notifications; whereas Android users need to enable storage access, as well as making direct phone calls. Authorities say if it were their intention to infringe on people’s privacy, they would have ensured that the app was granted access to storage files on all types of phones.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Thani a senior official at the Ministry of Health says that the reason for the discrepancy between Android and iOS is due to the fact that Android phones do not grant access exclusively to non-photo storage files, but grant apps access to photos as well.

The fact that personal data can be accessed on android phones hasn’t gone down well in a conservative society like Qatar’s, where privacy, especially for women, is regarded as extremely important, particularly for those who cover. Some women expressed their concerns and discomfort at the application being given unlimited access to their phone’s storage, including their photos.

“The information about whether someone is exposed or not is sent to a centralised server,” explained Wallace, which is what people are concerned about.”

Rashid Al-Saad, a lawyer and the founder of Sharq Law Firm, began a Twitter thread explaining his viewpoint on the application from a legal and societal perspective. Al-Saad believes that since downloading the application has become compulsory; there should have been further clarification from the government to avoid any skepticism from the public. He also added that the key is finding a balance between safeguarding people’s privacy and keeping society safe.

A self-professed community organiser by the Instagram handle @_umm_khalifa posted stories about how the application’s terms and conditions and permissions made her uncomfortable.

“I do NOT agree to the terms of service because I do not believe having a blank check access to my entire phone has anything to do with my health or well-being,” she said in one of the posts.

A screenshot of _umm_khalifa’s Instagram story

Abeer Fadda, a resident in Qatar, had a different concern.

“First, the application drains the battery,” she said. “Despite the location-tracking information, the application does not detail where the cases are or how they are distributed.”

Others have questioned why other measures to counter the virus weren’t introduced instead. Justin Martin, associate professor in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, tweeted saying that people are asking for a curfew, not for more personal surveillance.

One reader told Doha News he was more concerned with the lack of public adherence to social distancing measures despite repeated government warnings than he was about the Ehteraz app.

“The Corniche and the Pearl are hustling and bustling with people….people are having iftar parties and everyone is walking side by side on the streets and yet no hefty fines are put on these violations?

On the Apple App Store, users commented that the application is only available to iPhones that are running iOS 13 and above; thus excluding those who have older phones from downloading it.

A screenshot of users’ reviews on Apple Store

But are those complaining about the app trying to have their cake and eat it so to speak? How do they expect authorities to stop the spread of the virus without tracking its movement? And why are they happy with private companies that have little to no oversight accessing their data but not the government?

Many residents have willingly accepted the application’s need for access to their phone’s Bluetooth, location, and other services, arguing that social media and other apps already have access to the same kind of information on people’s phones.

“I trust in this government’s action and I believe that is a good way to manage the now [sic] health situation…..I accept the Ehteraz app, said one resident.

Mohammed Al Kuwari, a tech columnist for Al Arab Qatar, a local Arabic language newspaper, also took to Twitter, but to dispel any rumours and concerns. He explained how the application uses contact tracing to track infection spread. Having spoken to the team that developed the app, he said in a tweet,

“Ehteraz does not collect any user-specific information and does not use any of the case-tracking information for any other purposes. The application also follows the state’s regulations and legislation in this regard… The full text of the privacy policy will be included in the application soon.”

At checkpoints around Qatar, the police are asking people if they have the Ehteraz application downloaded on their phone. Sunette Goosen, a resident, and her family were stopped at a checkpoint in the Pearl. They were asked to show the application on their phones.

“…we said it’s not installed because the ministry said it’s only compulsory from the 22nd. They said fine, we can go but not to leave the house without it again. They were very civil, not rude or anything,”

People are getting around the privacy issues by downloading the application on old phones that do not have private data on it. About using a burner phone, Wallace said,

“the government has good intentions so [by using a burner phone] the spirit of the law still gets fulfilled.”

On May 20, 2020, Dr. Mohammed Al Thani, told Qatar TV that the application should not undermine the privacy or security of users. He also added that the information collected during these measures would not be stored for more than two months. He added that the application is vital to protect the country from another COVID-19 wave. Dr. Al Thani made a last announcement to assure that the public’s concerns and comments are not going unnoticed.

“There will be an update for the Ehteraz app to address the issues of concern and further improve its efficiency”


What do you think, do the benefits of the Ehteraz app outweigh the negatives? Let us know your thoughts.

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