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Coronavirus: Russia's tracking app sparks fury after mistakenly fining users

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In this April 8, 2020, file photo, police officers check documents of a woman to ensure she is complying with a self-isolation regime due to coronavirus in Moscow, Russia
In this April 8, 2020, file photo, police officers check documents of a woman to ensure she is complying with a self-isolation regime due to coronavirus in Moscow, Russia   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Pavel GolovkinI
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A tracking-app used in Russia to make sure coronavirus patients comply with self-confinement is sparking fury due to glitches and crashes that have resulted in hundreds of euros in fines per single users.

When nurse Maria Alexeyeva contracted COVID-19 at work, she isolated herself at home and followed the rules set by the Moscow authorities.

She checked in with doctors regularly, did not leave her apartment and downloaded the app.

The app, called Social Monitoring, tracks users via GPS and sends them notifications at random times demanding a selfie to prove they're home.

If it detects they've left or if they fail to provide a photo to prove it, patients can be fined €50 each time. But the app crashed when Alexeyeva tried to take a photo, as she kept struggling with the software for days.

Sometimes she would spend hours on the phone trying to contact the app user support service.

When her quarantine came to an end, she discovered she had stacked up fines for over €550.

“That’s more than my monthly wage,” Alexeyeva complained. “This quarantine has been hard on me. And now I have to deal with this too.”

Authorities say fines are justified, while users file thousands of complaints

Thousands of Muscovites are complaining they were mistakenly fined by the app.

In just over a month, authorities issued some 54,000 fines, racking up over €2.6 million among its nearly 70,000 registered users.

By the end of May, authorities got over 2,500 complaints, and more than 200 appeals were filed.

Euronews' Russian team collected further negative feedbacks on the App Store.

"Constantly asking for a picture, I take a photo, and it returns again to the identification menu! It's endless!"

"The technical support recommends restarting the phone again. With temperature and poor health, endless calls from Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing) and the clinic, it is simply impossible to dial up the technicians every time, dictate your data and describe the same thing. Nerves stretched to the limit."

Authorities insist the fines were justified as they were issued to those who repeatedly violated quarantine.

But the users say the app has glitches and flaws - sometimes demanding selfies in the middle of the night - and claim that the fines were dished out arbitrarily.

Moscow has been Russia's hardest-hit city during the pandemic, recording nearly half of the country's more than 414,000 cases.

The Social Monitoring app was rolled out in early April and was mandatory for those infected with the virus or suspected of having it.

Patients had to sign a form requiring them to install the app as part of their quarantine procedures, although they said they were not told how to use the app or what actions would be fined.

Euronews obtained from journalist Alexander Murashev the form he received with the instructions for his self-confinement.

There is only a small paragraph mentioning the app, which Murashev was not able to read due to his illness.

Furthermore, he got fined for not using the app over a period where it hadn't even been released, he told us.

Personal archive
Photo courtesy of Alexander MurashevPersonal archive

'I don't understand what I'm paying for'

How can the app I never installed track my movements?
Svetlana Bystrova

Grigory Sakharov, who self-isolated after a week in the hospital with coronavirus-induced pneumonia, was given six fines, totalling over €300.

Two dated back to when he was still hospitalized, even though he didn't install the app until after his discharge.

“I don’t mind paying a fine if I do something wrong, but I don’t understand what I’m paying for here,” Sakharov said.

Svetlana Bystrova, quarantined at home with flu-like symptoms, didn’t install the app.

She said her doctors didn’t tell her she had to, and she didn’t notice a clause requiring her to use the app in the quarantine order she signed.

After two weeks of strict self-isolation, Bystrova found she had been fined four times.

The first time it was for not installing the app, the other two times because the app found she was outside her apartment, and the last time without giving any detail.

“The one for not installing the app I get, fair enough,” Bystrova said. “But how can the app I never installed track my movements?”

Activists urge Moscow to drop the app claiming it violates privacy

Instead of containing the epidemic, it punishes those citizens who actually attempt to play by the rules.
Tanya Lokshina
HRW

Three online petitions demanding to abolish the app got over 94,000 signatures.

Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia, says that “the situation is absurd and insane."

“Instead of containing the epidemic, it punishes those citizens who actually attempt to play by the rules.”

On May 21, Human Rights Watch urged Moscow authorities to drop the app, noting that on top of the arbitrary fines, Social Monitoring violated users' privacy by accessing their location, calls, camera, network information and other data.

Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council echoed HRW's stance, urging officials to cancel all fines.

But Alexei Nemeryuk, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, said there will be no amnesty, noting that “there's a system that allows appealing the fines.”

That has proved unsuccessful, according to Leonid, from the Solovyov of the Apologia Protesta legal aid group.

Leonid, who is working to help over 100 people that were fined, said those who are fined must provide proof they did nothing wrong, which is difficult, while authorities are issuing fines based only on data from the app.

Moscow City Hall however said it was cancelling 468 fines for failing to take a selfie because the app made those requests in the middle of the night.

Another high-profile case involved Irina Karabulatova, a bed-ridden professor who hasn’t left her apartment in a year and got two fines for not installing the app.

After her story made national headlines, the fines were cancelled and officials apologized.