The application has been reintroduced to the public by the government in an attempt to curb the ongoing spread of Covid-19 in the second round of outbreaks, which has spread to 58 provinces so far. But the application, though proved useful among medical practitioners, is being questioned whether any of its functions would violate personal information and privacy
Despite having controversy surrounding, the government sponsored tracking application, Mor Chana, has met with a spike of the numbers of its users and times of downloads within just a few days.
From Thursday when the application was reintroduced and seriously addressed by the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) as part of its enforcement over specific red zones before stepping back due to strong public criticism, the application, however, has been voluntarily downloaded since, with a number of new users rising over one million in the past few days.
On Thursday, the number of users of the application stood at around 486, 000. It then has risen to 1.68 million, as being recorded today.
The number of times of the application downloads has also risen, from 1.65 million times on Thursday to 5.34 million times today.
“I’m glad to see that people have started to see its benefits both to themselves as well as the public at large,” said Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, CCSA’s spokesperson.
Dr. Taweesin on Thursday delivered the new rules written in the 17th regulation under the Emergency Decree to control the ongoing spread of Covid-19, which has now reached 58 provinces already.
Among the rules is the enforcement on use of Mor Chana in specific red zones of four provinces in the East plus Samut Sakhon, all of which have been placed as the “maximum and strict control areas”.
There are also some murky statements that refer to use of the application in other “maximum control” zones, while penalties for failing to use it were stressed on air by the spokesperson. This then prompted fury among public members for fears that the application would violate their privacy before the government stepped in to tone down the enforcement, saying the application was not mandatary.
Dr. Taweesin himself offered an apology to the public for overstepping the regulation, saying the penalties only meant to those with an ill-intention to cover up their records against disease control measures.
The application is actually nothing new. It was introduced to the public here before during the beginning of the relaxation of restriction rules in the first round of Covid-19 outbreaks in mid last year.
Mor Chana, however, is different from the other application introduced to the public, Thai Chana, which offers locations when users check in and check out at premises, they are present.
According to Director General of the Department of Disease Control, Dr. Opas Karnkawinphong, who helped explained about the application this week, Mor Chana (Doctors win) was first aimed to help users as well as medical practitioners assess Covid-19 infection risks from a set of assessments delivered to users via the application.
But the latest version of the application focuses more on tracking users to help medical practitioners locate contacts and risk groups once an infection occurs so that they can control the situation timelier. Users themselves, on the other hand, can benefit from such the tracking records by being alert and provided with recommendations regarding to disease control and prevention measures such as self-quarantine.
According to Dr. Supot Tarawut, Chief Executive Officer of the Digital Government Development Agency (Public Organisation), who gave an interview, which was broadcast live nationwide via NBT this week, the application would be activated once users have downloaded it on their mobile phones and follow the instructions provided by the application.
Once activated and a QR code acquired, and GPS and Bluetooth are turned on, users’ locations and motions or their tracks would be recorded and sent to a server with an encryption.
With such the records or “timelines”, in case an infection breaks out, medical practitioners would be able to use the data in the server to trace contacts in the same premises and periods of time, thus saving time for case investigations and introduction of disease control measures against the possible virus spread and risks involved.
The users, meanwhile, would be alert and provided with recommendations on what to do to deal with the situation upon a degree of their risk exposures.
“With this application, we hope that we will be allowed to live a “near” normal life, being under less restriction as the application will help specify risk groups following locations and timings,” said Dr. Supot.
Thai Chana, on other hand, was more encouraged among public members than Mor Chana in the beginning. It’s another application which helps locate users when they check in and check out via the application at the premises, they are present.
Without tracking records, however, medical practitioners have to spend time investigate contacts once an infection occurs, thus wasting some time before being able to introduce proportional disease control measures.
The application, however, has not been ruled out. Public members are still encouraged to continue using it along with Mor Chana to help confirm their locations.
As of today, 1.31 million people have used Thai Chana application, and 52.48 million people have checked in and checked out through its expanded platform installed by the premises nationwide.
Breach of privacy?
Buddhipongse Punnakanta, Digital Economy and Society Minister, who supervises the project, admitted in the same interview that use of the applications has revolved around the situation, which changes over time.
Mr. Buddhiponse said the two applications were developed and introduced almost the same time, but the situation in the first round was more relaxed than this round.
So, Thai Chana was more intensively promoted among public members as it’s more convenient to use. People just check in and check out when going in and going out public places like shops or restaurants, he said.
The current situation, however, is different as the disease is more widespread. So, the government has decided to bring Mor Chana back to public attention, the minister added.
“In my view, the difference is still at the situations we apply them to. We need to keep up with the situation, being able to track and trace cases to stop the rapid spread of the disease.
“The application is part of our attempt to protect people from the disease. It may not be a final answer like a vaccine, but it’s part of active surveillance,” said the DES minister.
DES Minister Buddhipongse said the challenge in contact tracing is timelines. Often, risk groups simply forget their timelines regarding where they have been to or are reluctant to disclose details.
The application is particularly necessary for residents in risk areas and activities such as travelling across the red zone provinces. This can help track and confirm whether there are Covid 19 infection risks or not so disease control measures and restrictions can be imposed more quickly, the minister said.
“The application helps track, locate, and differentiate risk groups quickly,” Mr. Buddhipongse concluded.
Mr. Buddhipongse said the application at this point is still voluntary. However, he has not ruled out the possibility that it could be enforced if necessary, in the future.
In fact, it’s the government policy to introduce surveillance systems for emergency situations, he said, and such the new technology could help screen risks in the future.
Mr. Buddhipongse said the government does not want to violate any one’s rights or privacy as feared. Personal information, he said, is still with users. (no collection of phone numbers nor photos, and users are registered with the application via the so-called “anonymous” ID or a QR code given, hence people will not know who they are unless they see doctors, the DGA explains)
“It causes no harm, so please download it,” urged Mr. Buddhipongse.
What was not explained during a one-hour interview is the fact regarding data storage. There is no explanation on how users’ records would be stored, except for authorized access by the Department of Disease Control and authorized data processing by the DGA.
Dr. Supot said the rise in numbers of new users and application downloads at the moment is quite fast, but the number of users needed is between 20 to 30 million, or almost half of the population.
“The more people download it, the easier disease control becomes,” said Dr. Supot.
Previously, the Thai Chana application and its expanded platform were also questioned by several new technology and digital economy experts that their murky procedures were against personal data and privacy protection.
The explanation given was the collected data would be kept for 60 days and erased afterwards.