Poland’s COVID-19 “selfie app” raises privacy questions – will everyone eventually be tracked?

Posted on Mar 25, 2020 by Caleb Chen
polish flag covid-19 selfie app

People in Poland under a mandatory 14-day quarantine have an interesting way to prove that they are following the quarantine. Usually, such mandatory quarantines are checked on by local authorities with physical visits; however, the government there has now released an app that quarantined individuals can opt in to use instead. This app, called the “Home quarantine app” in Polish is still opt in at this point. A Polish digital ministry spokesperson, Karol manys, told AFP:

“People in quarantine have a choice: either receive unexpected visits from the police, or download this app.”

How does the Polish COVID-19 quarantine “selfie app” work?

When signing up for the Polish COVID-19 “selfie app,” users first register a selfie. The quarantined user will then be randomly notified by the app to upload another selfie from inside their place of quarantine which is processed through facial recognition software to verify that the selfie is real. The selfie also includes the geotag information which also serves to prove that the sender is at the place of quarantine and not out and about. Polish authorities have had to fine people who have not been respecting their mandatory quarantines. If a selfie isn’t uploaded within twenty minutes, the local authorities are notified.

It’s not everyone’s best dream to be sending location information and pictures of the insides of their private homes to a government database multiple times a day. What if a quarantined individual’s selfie shows an illegal item in the background? Or what if the selfie upload doesn’t work, and the government is now allowed to barge into the quarantine location.

While it’s perfectly fine for such an app to exist – especially as an alternative to using law enforcement man hours to physically check on at-risk quarantined patients, it would be a huge privacy concern if Poland decided to make every citizen download the COVID-19 selfie app. It’s even possible that the app – which obviously has location and camera permissions – could be used for more nefarious surveillance purposes as was seen when Iran tried to get citizens to download a COVID-19 detection app – which has since been removed from app stores.

Poland is still exploring additional options to aid in “flattening the curve”

While there are no indications that the Home quarantine app will become the Home self-isolation app or the Shelter-at-home app, nothing is off the table as governments around the world continue to push boundaries in their response to COVID-19. On Monday, government spokesperson Piotr Muller told public radio:

“The government is considering various options regarding the epidemic situation, including launching other limitations than up to date.”

While it isn’t clear what those additional options or limitations might be. Given the existence of a location checking app that’s already being rolled out, if things get worse – it’s entirely possible that the Polish government could turn around and mandate that everyone download this app.