Posted by Y Rabinovitz
Use of information derived from personal cellular devices in order to “contact-trace” during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of controversy in most places where it was introduced. Many countries have supposedly stringent data-protection laws in place to prevent abuse of personal information; last week, however, a report of one clear incident of abuse suggested that the discovery was potentially the tip of the iceberg.
The incident in question occurred in the German city of Mainz and was reported by Deutsche Welle. Shortly after leaving a restaurant, a man fell to his death in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and police were anxious to locate witnesses. To make their job easier, they managed to “successfully petition” local health authorities to release data from the “Luca” app, which records how long people stay in various public locations, in this case, the restaurant. With the data they obtained, police contacted 21 potential witnesses.
When the news broke, there was “widespread outrage,” prompting public prosecutors to announce that they had launched an inquiry into how such a thing could have happened. They also reassured the public that “the relevant data will not be used further.”
Deutsche Welle adds that, “To date, there are no other known cases in which police managed to get data from the app for investigations” (italics added), and notes that the app is “subject to Germany’s strict data protection laws. The only way to retrieve the data is if the local health department and the establishment both give their consent to unencrypt the personal data.”
Responding to the incident, the app’s developers, culture4life, issued a statement, saying: “We condemn the abuse of Luca data collected to protect against infections.”
Culture4life added that it “receives frequent requests for its data from the law enforcement – but those requests are routinely denied” (italics added).
(P.S. Somewhat typically, the concern of many politicians was not centered on the invasion of privacy, but rather focused on the worry that “faith in digital apps, which are an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, [might] disappear,” as one politician from the German Green party said.)