in Azerbaijan a COVID tracing app draws much suspicion over privacy issues [updated]

In July, authorities in Azerbaijan released it’s very own COVID tracing tracker application. Launched by Tebib (Azerbaijan Administration of Regional Medical Division) the app was quick to draw attention, especially over its privacy issues. 

e-Tebib is just one of the deluge of apps that have been unveiled in recent months by various governments, promising to detect COVID-19 exposure and not only. According to this detailed MIT review, some of these apps are “lightweight and temporary, while others are pervasive and invasive” like the Chinese version which attains access to user’s identity, location, online payment history “so that police can watch for those who break quarantine rules”. 

In Azerbaijan, the police were already on the watch, with a mandatory SMS mechanism that required citizens to receive permission slips via SMS before going outside.  So why ask citizens to install an app, that technically does nothing new or does it?

Features and concerns

According to the app’s description, “E-Tebib is designed to inform users in real-time about the number of patients (both sick and recovered) in Azerbaijan.” Currently, the official data is available here and the numbers are updated once a day – based on the numbers reported by the Operational Headquarters set up under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan (the unit was established on February 27). It is unlikely the app will be providing real-time indicators when the main body in charge only shares the information once a day. 

In addition, article 4.4 in the user agreement of the app, explicitly states that any information, obtained through the app, may not be precise, correct, or trusted. 

And yet, the app also claims to reduce the number of infected patients by informing users of potential COVID infected patients around them via Bluetooth technology. 

Although the app claims it does not collect any personal data aside from user’s phone number the article 5.3 of the license agreement states, the center [the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies who owns the app’s license] collects users’ names, last names, phone numbers, social media accounts, emails, national ID numbers, and location. Article 5.4 mentions the center sharing of this information with third parties. These third parties may analyze collected information including users’ browsing history [The center does claim that it does not allow third-parties, to use the obtained information for other purposes]. Article 5.5.1 states the center may share users’ information with government bodies and/or representatives’ legal requests; court orders; or under any other legal condition. Article 5.6 states that users’ information may be shared with third parties in other countries for security purposes. Article 5.10 states that all user-related data is kept for a month. But it fails to explain whether the same expiry date applies to “third parties” that may have accessed users’ information.

The application is developed by A2Z Advisors LLC and the app’s privacy policy is linked to the company’s website. The landing page, however, does not provide any information on the app’s privacy policy. When reached out for a comment, AIW was recommended to send an email which at the time of writing this post remains unanswered. Similarly, in the App Store for IOs when clicking on “App Support” tab, the page once again leads to A2Z company website but does not actually provide any information related to the App. Instead, the privacy policy is accessible via this link that a user can access only after downloading and launching the app. 

According to the app’s version history at App Store, the application was released a month ago. The latest “update” was done 2 days ago [July 7].

The app’s further transparency criticism comes from the fact that it is not an open-source code and its license belongs to the Ministry of Communication, Transportation, and High Technologies. 

The biggest concern – the location of the data storage; the duration of the data storage; and who has access to this data.    

In Azerbaijan however, other concerns have also been voiced – that the application is only available for native speakers and that ex-pats living in the country are unable to use the application. It is also not catered to people with disabilities. 

FaktYoxla, a fact-checking platform in Azerbaijan concluded after a detailed legal analysis over the license agreement that e-Tebib is not designed in accordance with national legislation on data privacy.

On July 10, following widespread privacy concerns and questions over the app’s transparency, changes were made to its terms of the agreement. Originally users’ information was transferred to third parties, which were not explicitly defined in the agreement. At the time, independent experts and lawyers said this was against Article 32 of Azerbaijan’s state constitution and in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Azerbaijan’s constitution, namely, Article 8, stipulates that no one has a right to collect personal information without individual’s permission. The convention, on the other hand, refers to respect to privacy. 

The new license agreement now says that only under necessary circumstances, and within the normative legal framework personal information may be transferred to third parties. The revised agreement, still, fails to explicitly mention the precise list of institutions considered under third parties.

Although this last point was later addressed by Fuad Niftaliyev – the head of the app development project. Niftaliyev explained that the third parties referred to in the agreement are: Ministry of Health, Tebib, and the Operational Headquarters [set up under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan]. According to Niftaliyev, the collected information is stored on the servers operated by the Ministry of Communication and Information. The last point is itself problematic, as the transparency of government institutions in Azerbaijan is problematic especially as surveillance technology is widely used by the ministries alike. 

For potential users of the app, this remains problematic, especially when there is no option “B” if one disagrees with terms of service.