Civics: German police used a tracing app to scout crime witnesses. Some fear that’s fuel for covid conspiracists.

Rachel Pannet:

Authorities in Germany are under fire for tracking down witnesses to a potential crime by using data from a mobile phone app that was intended to help identify close contacts of people infected with the coronavirus.

Police in the city of Mainz, near Frankfurt, successfully petitioned local health authorities to release data from an app called Luca when a man fell to his death after leaving a restaurant in November. They said they were seeking witnesses who had dined at the restaurant around the same time and reportedly found 21 people from the app data.

The apparent misuse of the data has been criticized by privacy advocates, who fear that such sensitive information will be used for non-pandemic-control purposes. The incident is also likely to provide fodder for vaccine doubters, some of whom have taken on a broader anti-government stance, and those who believe coronavirus-related conspiracy theories.

Luca is subject to Germany’s strict data-protection regulations and, by law, information from the app cannot be accessed by non-health authorities and used in criminal prosecutions. The app stores the user’s personal details and uses QR codes to record how long they’ve spent at a location. The information is encrypted to obscure any personal information, according to Culture4life, the company that developed the app, and can only be decrypted by health authorities if someone at a venue is infected.