March 30, 2020 — The Croatian government’s proposal to track citizens’ locations during the coronavirus outbreak is taking shape. It would create a dedicated app or text messages for citizens ordered into isolation, according to one of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s closest advisors.
ational Security Advisor Robert Kopal said tracking measures could include using location data provided by telecommunications companies, applications installed onto devices, or sending text messages to those who’ve been ordered into isolation. Those who refuse monitoring could be forced into quarantine.
The measures Kopal described in an interview with N1 come as governments across Europe consider monitoring their citizens to slow the virus’s spread. But forcing Europeans to voluntarily install digital monitoring tools onto their devices may be a tough sell, especially after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) created a hullabaloo over data privacy.
The Croatian government’s measure tries to skirt the line by targeting people directed into self-isolation and only tracking current location — not movement.
“There is no monitoring of location or movement, only for people who are in self-isolation,” Kopal said in the interview. “If they leave the perimeter, it is visible, nothing else.”
Kopal emphasized the focus on singular locations and not movement — a distinction meant to placate fears of a nanny state hoarding data and profiling citizens’ routines and encounters. It’s a sensitive issue for Croatians still wary of government overreach after life in the former Yugoslavia.
Kopal added the measures would be instated “only when the health and lives of citizens could not be effectively protected otherwise.”
The proposed amendments to Croatia’s Telecommunications Act first must pass parliament, where it faces uncertainty. Social Democrats decry the measure, claiming it bypasses Constitutionally-prescribed procedures.
The Croatian constitution allows personal freedoms to be curtailed in extreme circumstances such as war. The Parliament must enact these sorts of laws with a two-thirds majority vote, which some Social Dems argue applies to the government’s tracking ammendment.
The law may also run afoul of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Plenkovic’s government pointed to the urgency of the pandemic and claimed the GDPR allowed such a bill.
“Passing this Act is part of measures aimed at enabling urgent and adequate treatment of all competent authorities in newly emerged special circumstances in relation to a declared COVID-19 disease epidemic and the need to protect the lives and human health through the use of the said data,” the amendment states.
Others have suggested Croatia’s constitutional court must provide guidance on the proposal’s feasibility. The Constitutional Court can weigh in on its own, at the request of a citizen, or at the request of those proposing the law, Kopal said. It can also put a freeze on the law’s implementation until its constitutionality is weighed.
The proposed tactics follow’s Taiwan’s, which reportedly uses a phone-based “fence” to keep at-risk residents in their homes with some success. Whether that’ll translate to Europe remains uncertain. Poland’s rollout of a similar tracking application has been reportedly panned as buggy.
Croatia’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus’s spread include a count of how many Croats ignored orders to self isolate. The number often approaches the triple digits. Kopal said such behavior can only hurt long-term efforts to slow the virus’s spread.
“The fact remains that the Government, in the explanation of the amendments to the Act, clearly stated the need to enact it in these exceptional and extraordinary circumstances and pointed out the proportionality of restrictions (among other conditions) for the protection of human health, which is a basic constitutional requirement.” Kopal said.