Iran's coronavirus 'diagnosis' app looks more like a surveillance tool

AC19 asks for real-time location info it clearly doesn't need.

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ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Iran is known to have one of the more serious coronavirus infection rates at the moment, but the country's government appears to be exploiting that for the sake of political control. Vice has learned that a government-endorsed app, AC19, poses as a tool to help diagnose the presence of the virus (a bogus claim by itself) but also asks for real-time location data -- clearly not necessary for telling someone whether or not they should go to the hospital. Moreover, the location permission request pop-up is in English -- and about 40 percent of Android users in Iran have phones with an OS old enough that they won't get that pop-up at all.

AC19's developer, Sarzamin Housmand (formerly Smart Land Solutions), is also known for developing government clones of Telegram that weren't as secure as the real thing and were geared more toward enabling surveillance.

While it's not clear exactly what the Iranian government is doing with the data, it's eager to brag about the scale. ICT minister MJ Azari Jahromi recently boasted that millions of users were submitting data, ostensibly to help create a risk map. The problem, as you might imagine, is that Iran is notorious for extensive populating monitoring and a willingness to take extreme measures to clamp down on dissent. There are concerns Iran is underreporting its coronavirus infection and mortality rates to maintain the appearance of control and quash opposition, and AC19 may help it identify where some of those opponents are going.

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