The Armenian government continued to defend on Wednesday its controversial decision to use personal data from people’s mobile phones to fight against the coronavirus epidemic.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian reiterated government assurances that the extraordinary measure will not infringe on citizens’ privacy and civil rights or be used for eavesdropping on opposition figures.
“It’s only about a state of emergency declared as a result of an epidemic,” he told a news conference. “That is, in case of a state of emergency declared on any other grounds there will be no such interference in citizens’ rights and liberties.”
Badasian insisted that access to mobile phone location and usage data will help the Armenian authorities to better contain the spread of the virus. They will find it easier to trace people who have come into contact with those infected with the disease, he said.
The circle of such people is to be determined by an automated system. If it turns out that they not only received phone calls or messages from infected persons but also were in close proximity with the latter, they will be contacted by officials and possibly placed in quarantine or self-isolation.
“If, for example, I am a virus carrier who phoned [from Yerevan] the same person in Gyumri 10 or 20 times, that alone will not be deemed a risk factor,” explained Badasian. “But if I phoned another person even once and our locations matched … an official from the Ministry of Emergency Situations will make a phone call, ascertain additional details and make a decision based on that.”
The government hastily pushed a relevant bill through the Armenian parliament late on Tuesday amid strong objections from opposition lawmakers. They voiced concerns about privacy violations and cast doubt on the effectiveness of smartphone tracking. Some civic activists have echoed those concerns.
Badasian again dismissed them, saying that the authorities will not have access to, let alone publicize, the content of any phone conversations or text messages. Only a handful of government specialists will be processing phone data, he said, adding that they all will sign non-disclosure pledges.
The minister also argued that the bill, which President Armen Sarkissian swiftly signed into a law, requires the authorities to delete all data after the coronavirus-related state of emergency ends in Armenia.
Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information, countered, however, that the data has to be deleted only within one month after the end of emergency rule. “What will they be doing with that data for one month?” she said.