Over 1 million Czechs download eFacemask app, but many fear ‘Big Brother’ is watching

Photo: Candid_Shots, Pixabay / CC0

Virtually everyone with an active Czech mobile telephone number received the following text message on Tuesday: “Interior Ministry announcement: Please install the eRouška application on your smartphone. … This app alerts you of an encounter with a COVID-infected person. Thank you. Jarmila Rážová, Chief Hygienist of the Czech Republic.” While well over a million people have installed the ‘eFacemask’ app since getting that SMS, many have not over privacy concerns.

The eRouška app has been an integral part of the Czech government’s Smart Quarantine initiative, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, since June. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded it before the ‘second wave’ of Covid-19 infections hit the country – back when the Czech Republic was among the success stories in handling the pandemic.

But even now – when this country has for weeks had the highest infection rate per capita in Europe, and authorities are scrambling to boost the capacity of hospitals to treat serious Covid-19 cases – many are refusing to install the ‘electronic facemask’ on their phones over privacy concerns.

When it comes to the ‘electronic facemask’ app, such concerns are ungrounded, says Jiří Matzner, a lawyer specialising in the regulation of software and the protection of related rights.

Photo: eRouska.cz

“eRouška is an application that does not work with your personal data. It doesn't process your data or forward them anywhere. It doesn't track your movement or exactly where you are. So, what it says in the SMS is true: eRouška doesn't know your identity or location. It doesn’t know whose phone it is.

“What it does do is identify whether another phone within 2 or 3 metres of yours has received confirmation of a positive or negative test results, and alerts you that you are in close proximity.”

Furthermore, noted Jiří Matzner in an interview with Czech Radio, many people install all kinds of third-party apps on their phones and computers that do track such things – and much more – without giving it a second thought.

“These days, apps tracks data on everything imaginable. When you are active, where you go, what you do for work, the music you listen to, whether you follow or do sports, and so on. Phone apps track it all. Most people don’t know the full extent of this, and I don’t think it even interests them.”

In mid-October, hygienists contacted approximately one at-risk person per infected person daily, according to Clever Quarantine data. Fewer traced risky contacts can mean two things: either the Czechs already reduced the number of risky contacts during September, or the hygienic stations do not have time to call them.

For the eRouška app to make a significant difference, people must not only download it but also have the latest mobile operating system installed on their phones and keep Bluetooth turned on. When returning a positive test result, hygiene stations will ask the person to install the app and enter their phone number into the system.

Based on the anonymous data the app collects, an algorithm then evaluates whether a user has spent enough time near another user with Covid-19 to be at risk. That means being within 2 metres for more than 15 minutes. The app determines this by measuring the strength of the mutual Bluetooth signal. On Thursday alone, 924 people with eRouška installed on their phones tested positive and nearly 8,000 others received at-risk contact warnings. But Chief Hygienist Jarmila Rážová said only 1 in 5 who have the app and test positive self-report their status.