An Android application developed by the Iranian government to assist in coordinating the country’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been removed by Google amidst accusations that it may be used to track Iranian dissidents.
The application, named AC19, was released
several days ago by Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education.
Its release was announced through a text message sent by the Iranian
government to every mobile telephone subscriber in the country. The text
message urged citizens to download the application through a dedicated
website or third-party app stores, including the Google Play Store.
Millions have since done so.
The purpose of AC19 is to help coordinate
the nationwide response to COVID-19, known as coronavirus, in a country
that is experiencing one of the world’s most prolific outbreaks of the
disease. App users can register using their unique phone number and
determine whether their flu-like symptoms resemble those of COVID-19.
The app’s developers argue that it can help keep people from flooding
local hospitals throughout the country, which are already overwhelmed.
But some users have raised concerns that
the app also requests access to the real-time geolocation data of users,
which it then stores in remote databases. As technology news website
some have accused the government in Tehran of using the AC19 app in
order to track the movements of citizens. An expert consulted by ZDNet
to examine the app’s technical details said that it did not appear to
contain unusually intrusive features or functions.
However, the company used to develop the app, called Smart Land Strategy, has previously built apps that, according
to ZDNet, were used by the Iranian intelligence services and were
subsequently removed from the Google Play Store. Some Iranians claim
that, given the connection between AC19 and Smart Land Strategy, it is
possible that the new app may be used in the future by the Iranian
government to spy on citizens, despite the fact that it may be presently
useful in efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic.
The app continues to be available through Iranian government websites and app sites other than Google’s.