Ministry’s health tracking app of COVID-19 isn’t transparent: Association

Alternative Informatics Association is an NGO centers upon media literacy issues, internet censorship and mass surveillance for 10 years

What is Alternative Informatics Association? What are the purposes of the association?

The Alternative Informatics Association (Alternatif Bilişim Derneği) is an Istanbul based civil society organization focusing on the issues of media literacy, internet censorship and mass surveillance since 31 December 2010.

The association organizes conferences, workshops, publishes e-books and contributes to the organization of online and offline campaigns against internet censorship and mass surveillance. Members have produced scientific work, content related to technical guidance and organized public outreach activities concerning digital literacy and online games in the last decade. In recent years, the association has expanded its role in reporting breaches of digital rights in Turkey and demanding the protection of associated freedoms. Alternatif Bilişim has been a member of European Digital Rights (EDRi) organization since 2014 along with 41 other prominent digital rights organizations, active in Europe. The association underlines that technological work and code has the most adverse impact on its users; thus the critical public sphere must also be created by users themselves, in a distributed, decentralized fashion. Thus, the expert meets the scientist who meets the technician and they all strive for social good; hence they form, together, the critical public sphere of needs, inquiries and ample solutions.   

 -What do you think about Ministry of Health’s “Hayat Eve Sığar” mobile app to track COVID-19?

In general, these applications can allow infected people and their contact to be alerted more quickly, thus quarantining themselves faster and preventing the spread of infection more. But, even in this case, any corona contact monitoring application is not intended to protect neither ourselves nor those we contact. It is important to note that the use of these applications will not lead to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic or the definitive solution to the public health crisis. These practices are taken by the government, without taking necessary social insurance measures and providing adequate health opportunities, without eliminating economic concerns such as loss of jobs; it does not ensure that people stay at home, do not go out on the streets, avoid close contact or end the disease. Therefore, it is not possible to produce solutions to public health crisis only through technological solutions and applications without taking these social and economic measures.

People should not rely on the measures and promises made by governments on technological measures and pandemic monitoring practices. Contact tracking applications will enable governments to achieve a great deal of surveillance. These applications involve the risk of creating serious prejudice and discrimination in the community as sensitive data such as health, gender, age, language, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status or disability are processed.

Hayat Eve Sığar application uses base station information from Bluetooth, GPS and GSM operators (Turkcell, Türk Telekom, Vodafone). With this application, citizen Identification Number, father name and date of birth information, location data, Central Civil Registration System (MERNİS) address information, health data, phone number information are processed. When this application is installed, communication (base station) data, contacts, camera, photo and video, location, approximate location (network-based), precise location information (GPS and Network Based), wireless connection information, full network access information become available and by phone pairing with Bluetooth devices, Bluetooth settings, network connections, Google service configuration information can be accessed.

Personal data is processed by the Ministry of Health and the data controller is also the Ministry of Health. Data are shared with the Ministry of Interior and the Police Forces as well. Therefore, the central system has been adopted in collecting and mapping data and even data exchange with multiple central databases has been allowed. Many personal data that are not relevant for public health purposes are collected and processed through the application.

The application is not transparent and auditable. There is no clear and sufficient information or a text of confirmation.

No information was given to users about the effectiveness of the application, and policies regarding the use of the application were not published.

The application is not ethically compliant with the principle of confidentiality by design, and it is not possible to determine whether the users derive an anonymous or temporary identity to each user for identification by third parties.

The application was developed by the Ministry of Health. For this reason, it does not seem possible to be audited by independent developers and other institutions regarding the development of the application, detection of deficits and closing these deficits.

There is no information and explanation as to whether the application has undergone necessary and adequate checks and whether the audit of the competent institution has been passed such as the Personal Data Protection Board in terms of protecting health data and other personal data.

In 2016, nearly one million patients’ data were stolen as a result of the cyber attack on 33 hospitals of the Ministry of Health, and not only health information but also other personal information were stolen by third parties. In a lawsuit that ended in 2018, it was revealed that many personal data, including health data, were sold to a third company by the Social İnsurance Institution. Again, the Ministry of Health remained silent in using the health data of individuals for political purposes in the 2019 local elections. For all these reasons Turkey’s Ministry of Health and other institutions do not store personal data in a transparent and reliable manner.

Considering these negative examples, it is necessary to reorganize the “Hayat Eve Sığar” application in a decentralized, voluntary, reliable, transparent and auditable manner.

A member of our association compiled the developments regarding contact tracking applications in the world and examined these applications on the basis of personal data protection. This booklet contains detailed information about the Hayat Eve Sığar application. For more information, you can access the booklet at https://ekitap.alternatifbilisim.org/covid-19-temas-takip-uygulamalari/

Hayat Eve Sığar -mobile app

 -Are you in touch similar global associations for your events and trainings?

Alternatif Bilişim`s flagship event has been “The Internet Ungovernance Forum” in 2014 https://iuf.alternatifbilisim.org/ during which issues such as censorship and freedom of speech; surveillance and privacy; excessive commercialization and super-monopolies; protective, prohibitionist and conservative governance approaches; awful governance examples as in the case of Turkey were tackled in workshops, critical seminars and public debates. The interesting axis of the event was that it was held synchronously with “The Internet Governance Forum” organized by conventional internet governance structures and organizations. This added positively to the public debate and brought in considerable awareness and traction, both nationally and transnationally. Later on, Alternatif Bilişim became a member of EDRi, continued digital rights advocacy in Europe and also partnered with prominent organizations and initiatives such as Access Now (through their Rights-Con events), Wikimedia Foundation, CCC conferences (Chaos Computer Club events), Tactical Tech (Germany) and Constant vzw (Belgium). As for the international connection, crypto-parties and digital security tools training events organized by Alternatif Bilişim members are frequented by the diaspora living in Turkey, especially in Istanbul.

 -I know you are a part of Free Web Turkey. What is this platform after? Can you explain it?

Free Web Turkey is a project that started in late 2019 to respond to censorships and an increasing number of Turkey’s banned websites in recent years. Media and Law Studies Association conducts the project supported by MATRA Programme of Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Istanbul.

There are non-governmental organizations such as Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), Common Knowledge and Communication Association (TBID), Alternative Informatics Association (Alternatif Bilişim), Pirate Party Movement, Istanbul hackerspace and SUB Publishing on the Free Web Turkey platform. Aims of the project are as follows:

-Share methods on how to survive online censorship and violations of freedom expression

-Provide trainings for internet users and service providers to fight against censorship

-Raise awareness for those working on the process of banning websites or contents

For these purposes, through trainings and workshops, we hope to meet people who want to support and contribute to the Free Web Turkey Project.

You can find updates, articles, news and monthly bulletins for online censorship and blocked content at www.freewebturkey.com.

 –One of your missions is to publish new media studies. Can you mention about them?

As an Association, we support open access and open science policy-making, publishing in the scientific literature aiming to support young scientists and to contribute to qualified sources on new media studies in Turkey. We hold a national refereed congress every two years in different cities. Our publications reach a large number of people for free and serve the development of open science policy. The National Congress of New Media Studies, has been held independently for the last two years without any organic ties with any university. Our aims are to democratize the production of academic knowledge in Turkey and to voice out the social-political-cultural and economic issues of significance. Therefore, themed calls such as digital literacy, digital inequalities and the right to communication took place at the new media studies congress. Here is the website for the conference series: https://yenimedya.org.tr . The proceedings of the congress are published regularly and a special selection from the presentations is compiled.

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