Moscow’s Covid-19 tracking app prompts outcry over fines and glitches

Late in April, Moscow primary school teacher Elena Timofeeva called a doctor after she developed a fever and struggled to breathe. The doctor ordered her to remain at home for two weeks, and had her sign papers in which she agreed to use a city-run app that monitors suspected coronavirus patients.

Weeks later, after Ms Timofeeva recovered, she discovered that the app had fined her Rbs56,000 ($800) — two-thirds of the average monthly wage in the Russian capital — without her knowledge, for 14 different alleged quarantine violations, even though she had only left the house once for a doctor-mandated CT lung scan.

“I’ve got two kids, I kept working from home with pneumonia and a fever . . . it took all my energy, and then when my quarantine ended, I found out about all these fines at once,” Ms Timofeeva said. “It completely stressed me out.”

Ms Timofeeva is one of thousands of Muscovites who claim that the app wrongly fined them, with many arguing it trapped them with an array of compliance criteria that were impossible to meet.

Officials say the platform, which was rushed out in a matter of weeks and made compulsory for all people with respiratory disease symptoms, was a vital component of a draconian response that helped keep the city’s death rate from Covid-19 at 3.8 per cent, a fraction of the rate in most large cities worldwide.

“The social-monitoring service was developed under a very quick turnround when flattening the coronavirus spread curve, easing the burden on the healthcare system and keeping people safe was key,” Eduard Lysenko, head of the Moscow city technology department, said in written answers to the Financial Times. “This is why in the early stages there may well have been flaws.”

Users said they were fined after the app wrongly geolocated them outside their homes Users said they were fined after the app wrongly geolocated them outside their homes

But people who claim the app fined them without cause say it wrongly geolocated them outside their apartments, requested selfies to prove they were at home in the middle of the night, and required a certificate that could only be received in person at a hospital — which came at the risk of another fine — to shut it down.

Several users told the FT that their doctors had failed to tell them they would be required to use the app or face forced hospitalisation, while some said the platform even prevented them from receiving medical care for other ailments.

“Seeing a doctor essentially meant extending your quarantine, because nobody wanted to work out what the problem was,” said Olga Teselko, a 37-year-old mother of two.

The furore over the fines has heightened worries that Russia may use the pandemic as an opportunity to increase surveillance of ordinary citizens. Privacy rights groups have already filed appeals to shut it down, claiming the app violates Russian laws on collecting personal data.

The platform demands an exceptionally broad range of permissions from users and stores their data on the city’s servers for a year, after which the mayor’s office has promised to delete it. People registered as ill in the Covid-19 database were unable to receive “digital passes” required to leave their homes even long after they had recovered, or if they had been mistakenly diagnosed, according to Human Rights Watch.

“This is the state’s way of telling us to be grateful we didn’t die,” said Olga Petukhova, who is appealing four fines set by the app during the 35 days she was ill with Covid-19 and pneumonia.

Despite Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin beginning to roll back the lockdown this month, the app remains in use.

Though Moscow says it has no plans to expand its functions for a general contact-tracing programme, other government bodies are exploring similarly expansive data collection in a compulsory app for migrants and a unified system for storing Russians’ personal information.

“There’s been a huge number of false positives, but they still have the technical possibilities to expand this experiment on to more people,” said Sarkis Darbinyan, chief legal officer at privacy rights group Roskomsvoboda. “The rawness of the app and system won’t stop them from copying these applications.”

Irina Karabulatova, a bedridden professor who has not left her home in Moscow for more than a year, was fined twice for not installing the app Irina Karabulatova, a bedridden professor who has not left her home in Moscow for more than a year, was fined twice for not installing the app © AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

Mr Lysenko said that Moscow was attempting to improve the app, and had already cancelled more than 400 fines after users missed notifications sent in the middle of the night. Officials also apologised to Irina Karabulatova, a bedridden professor who has not left home for more than a year, after she complained about receiving two fines for not installing the app.

“We are continuing to add new features to the social-monitoring app to make the service more convenient for users,” Mr Lysenko said. “This helps us be sure that patients and potentially infected citizens are observing quarantine honestly without seriously inconveniencing them, including by processing their personal data.”

But Mr Darbinian said that forcing sick Muscovites to comply with the app already opened the door to other significant privacy violations. “Lots of people were ready to agree to the app’s most intrusive demands because they made it difficult for them to refuse,” he said. “People don’t know what their rights are, so they go along with it.”