Armenian authorities have started accessing and using personal data from people’s mobile phones to fight against the coronavirus epidemic, a senior official said on Tuesday.
Armenia’s parliament controversially allowed them to track movements, phone calls and text messages of people infected with the virus as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country spread rapidly last week. Opposition lawmakers as well as civic activists condemned the move, questioning its effectiveness and voicing concern about privacy violations.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government has repeatedly ruled out using smartphone tracking for political purposes. It maintains that the extraordinary measure will make it easier for the authorities to trace people who have come into contact with COVID-19 patients.
Such people are to be identified by an electronic system using phone location and usage data.
According to an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian, who coordinates the government’s response to the epidemic, the new monitoring mechanism has already been launched.
“All personal data remains on mobile phone operators’ servers,” the official, Bagrat Badalian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We send them a phone number which is of interest to us; namely a patient’s phone number. The special software then determines the circle of their contacts.”
“When that circle is determined we receive the phone numbers of only those individuals who have potentially been in contact with the patient,” he said, adding that they are then ordered to self-isolate.
“If they leave their self-isolation sites information about that automatically goes to the police, which either telephones them or send a special group of officers to find out the reasons for their departure,” explained Badalian.
The isolated persons, the official went on, are also monitored by epidemiologists who may refer them to policlinics for coronavirus tests. “If a person is in serious need in terms of food supplies … that information is collected and passed on to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs so that it supplies them with food,” he said.
Badalian did not say how many Armenians exposed to infected persons have been identified through phone tracking so far.
The daily numbers of new coronavirus cases registered in Armenia have fallen in the last few days. The Ministry of Health reported on Tuesday that 20 people tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of COVID-19 cases to 853.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian announced on Monday that as part of their efforts to stem the spread of the virus the authorities are also planning to significantly expand COVID-19 testing. He said the daily number of such tests, which has varied between 200 and 400 in the last two weeks, will like reach 1,000 by the end of this week.
Medics hailed these plans, saying that the more extensive testing will ascertain the current incidence of the disease and the effectiveness of a nationwide lockdown and other measures taken by the authorities.
“A larger number of tests will show what is really happening in our country and whether or not it’s worth continuing mass testing,” said Arman Badalian, an epidemiology lecturer at Yerevan State Medical University.
Hasmik Ghazinian, a senior doctor at Yerevan’s Nork hospital treating the largest number of coronavirus patients in Armenia, agreed. “I welcome that decision because that’s how we can first and foremost determine how many infected people we have,” she said.
Government officials say that 60,000 test kits purchased from China will be delivered to Armenia later this week. The authorities also expect to receive thousands of more test kits from Russia.