Armenia: Law restricts rights to privacy amid Covid-19 crisis

Armenia: Law restricts rights to privacy amid Covid-19 crisis

PanARMENIAN.Net - The Armenian parliament has passed amendments giving the authorities broad surveillance powers to use cellphone data for tracking coronavirus cases. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities access to confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, April 3.

As of April 2, Armenia had 663 identified cases of Covid-19. The government has declared a state of emergency from March 16 to April 14, imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 26, and taken other measures to contain the spread of the virus.

“The Armenian government is facing a public health emergency, and technology has an important role to play in communicating public health messages and promoting access to health care,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But at the same time, the authorities need to address the ways that using mass surveillance undermines rights.”

The law requires telecommunications companies to provide the authorities with phone records for all of their customers, including phone numbers and the location, time, and date of their calls and text messages. The authorities would use that data to identify, isolate or put in self-isolation, and monitor anyone infected with Covid-19 or those who had been in close contact with infected people.

The government says that the law would allow the authorities to collect only phone records, and that they will not have access to the content of customers’ private communications. But such information can contain sensitive and revealing insights about an individual’s identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities, Human Rights Watch said.

"While restrictions on the right to privacy to contain the pandemic may be permissible, the government must ensure that such restrictions are lawful, necessary, and proportionate," the organization said.

"The law requires the destruction of call records and other obtained data after the state of emergency ends. However, the government should also consider imposing strict limits on the collection of phone records, the purposes for which they are used or aggregated, and the agencies or officials that may access such information. People should also be made aware when their data has been collected."

HRW also said that if the state of emergency persists over a prolonged period, the government should regularly review whether phone records that are no longer relevant should be destroyed.

Armenia’s Ombudsperson has also expressed concerns that the law lacks adequate human rights guarantees.

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