Virus tracking app angers thousands in Moscow with fines

Virus tracking app angers thousands in Moscow with fines

MOSCOW (AP) – When nurse Maria Alexeyeva contracted the coronavirus at work, she isolated herself at home and followed the rules of the Moscow authorities: she checked in regularly with doctors, did not leave her apartment and downloaded a smartphone app that city ​​to monitor quarantined patients.

The Social Monitoring app tracks users via GPS and sends them random notifications asking for a selfie to prove they are still at home. If it detects that they have left the house or they cannot provide a photo, they will be fined approximately $ 56 each time.

But soon the app became a nightmare for Alexeyeva. It crashed when she tried to take a picture. Weak from illness, she struggled with the software for days, sometimes holding hours for technical support. And when her quarantine ended, she found that she had imposed 11 fines totaling $ 620.

“That is more than my monthly wages,” Alexeyeva told The Associated Press. “This quarantine has been hard on me. And now I have to recover. ‘

Thousands of Muscovites also complain that they have unjustly fined the quarantine app. In just over a month, authorities issued approximately 54,000 fines, totaling $ 3 million among the nearly 70,000 registered users.

The authorities insist that the fines are justified and imposed on those who have repeatedly violated quarantine. But the users of the app say it has glitches and flaws, sometimes asking for selfies in the middle of the night, adding that the fines were imposed at random.

Moscow was Russia’s biggest hotspot during the pandemic, with nearly half of the country’s more than 414,000 cases. As the city of 12 million people struggled to contain the outbreak, it used technology that was later widely criticized.

After two virus cases were reported in February, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin authorized facial recognition software to track down Chinese citizens in the capital, with complaints from rights organizations. When the city introduced digital passes for commuters in April, crowded crowds formed at the metro stations while police checked smartphones individually.

But the biggest complaints focus on the Social Monitoring app, which was rolled out in early April and was mandatory for those infected with or suspected of having the virus.

Patients had to sign a form to install the app as part of their quarantine notifications, although they were not told how to use the app or what actions would result in fines.

Grigory Sakharov, who isolated himself after a week in the hospital with coronavirus-caused pneumonia, received six fines, about $ 336 in total. Two date from a hospital stay, even though he installed the app after his discharge.

“I don’t mind paying a fine for something I did wrong, but I don’t understand what I’m paying for here,” Sakharov told the AP.

Svetlana Bystrova, quarantined at home with flu-like symptoms, did not install the app. She said her doctors hadn’t told her to, and she didn’t notice a clause requiring her to use the app in the quarantine order she signed.

After two weeks of strict self-isolation, Bystrova discovered that she had been fined four times, $ 224 in total. One was for not installing the app, two said it was detecting her outside her apartment and one was for not giving details about her misconduct.

“The one who doesn’t install the app I get, fair enough,” said Bystrova. “But how can the app I’ve never installed track my movements?”

Vladimir Perevalov, who installed the app and took diligent selfies, was fined $ 168 three times. The app never sent him notifications, he said.

The outrage grew as the stories of arbitrary fines mushroomed on social media. At the end of May, authorities received more than 2,500 complaints about the fines and more than 200 lawsuits were filed. Three online petitions seeking to abolish the app received over 94,000 signatures.

Tanya Lokshina, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, said that while many countries use mobile tracking apps, she has never seen so many complaints.

“The situation is absurd. It is insane, “said Lokshina. “Instead of curbing the epidemic, it actually serves … to punish law-abiding citizens who are actually trying to abide by the rules.”

On May 21, Human Rights Watch urged Moscow authorities to drop the app, noting that, in addition to the arbitrary fines, Social Monitoring violated users’ privacy by accessing their location, calls, camera, network information and other data.

The Presidential Human Rights Council of Russia reiterated HRW’s position and urged officials to withdraw all fines.

But Alexei Nemeryuk, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said there will be no amnesty, noting, “There is a system to dispute the fines.”

That did not work, said Leonid Solovyov of the Apologia Protesta legal aid group, which works with more than 100 people, was fined. He said those who are fined must prove they have done nothing wrong, which is difficult, while authorities base the penalty on data from the app.

“Some fines are indeed being abolished,” Solovyov told AP, but only the “most egregious cases.”

City Hall has said it canceled 468 fines for not taking a selfie, as the app made those requests in the middle of the night.

Another high-profile case involved Irina Karabulatova, a bedridden professor who has not left her apartment for a year and received two fines for not installing the app. After her story made national headlines, the fines were canceled and officials apologized.

“They canceled my (fines) because journalists stood up for me,” Karabulatova told AP. “But what’s going to happen to the others is a big question.”

Sakharov received messages Thursday saying his fines had been canceled. Alexeyeva, the nurse, was also approached by officials who promised to lift all of her fines.

Then Alexeyeva’s mother was told she was fined: Social Monitoring found she was leaving the apartment.

“My mother has been quarantined with me. She has not signed a document with a clause on using Social Monitoring and she does not have the app, “said Alexeyeva. “Looks like we got excited too soon.”

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Alexander Roslyakov, Anatoly Kozlov and Pavel Golovkin contributed.

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