Poland's coronavirus quarantine app requests random selfies to prove you're not out in public

Police are notified if users don’t respond to government selfie requests in 20 minutes.

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Poland has created a “Home Quarantine” app that requires those at high risk for COVID-19 to prove they’re quarantining with a selfie, according to France 24. The app is meant for use by those who have recently returned from travel abroad, for whom the Polish government has instituted a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.

The app reportedly uses geolocation and facial recognition to check in on those in quarantine, randomly requesting more selfies throughout the day for persistent proof of quarantine. Police are notified if a user fails to respond in 20 minutes. Failing to abide by quarantine rules can result in up to a $1,000 fine.

If used properly, this app could be a productive failsafe for Poland’s quarantining efforts. But it also raises questions about mass surveillance and the government’s right to use our smartphones as tools for public good at the risk of personal privacy.

China has taken similar measures — Poland is not the first country to leverage its residents’ smartphones to fight the spread of COVID-19. When the outbreak first became prevalent in China, the country’s government created an app to assess any resident’s risk of contracting the virus.

In both cases, the government has decided it’s worth sacrificing personal privacy for the strict benefit of public health. It’s unclear whether or not that sacrifice is paying off.

Random police check-ins? Really? — Fighting the spread of COVID-19 across the world means strict changes to our daily lifestyles — but we need to be careful about the precedents being set by those measures, too. It’s not at all ridiculous to expect those at high risk to stay indoors, but it is ludicrous to legally mandate that those people check in at random intervals by sending a selfie.

On the most basic level, 20 minutes is not a long time to respond to a phone notification. On a good day, it can take longer than 20 minutes to respond to a friend’s text, and these are not exactly good days. What if someone is taking a much-needed stress nap when the notification comes through? Or taking a break from the internet to stave off news-induced anxiety? Next thing they know there’s a police officer at the door requesting a few hundred dollars for a missed selfie.

Then there are larger implications. Giving the government the legal mandate to check on its citizens whenever it wants via the internet is a very, very bad look for personal privacy in 2020. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional matter — but the government’s ability to quickly bring random smartphone check-ins into its law enforcement policies is terrifying.

Details about the app's enforcement thus far are minimal, though the Polish police are said to have already slapped a $118 fine on one user. Because sending more bills at a time when many people are out of work makes total sense.