Poland's ruling camp is toying with the idea of making it mandatory for electronics retailers to equip every smartphone with a government threat-alert app. Critics are raising concerns about privacy and warn of normalizing intrusive government surveillance.
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Such a proposal can be found in the draft Civil Protection and State of Emergency Act. As reported by the daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, smartphones are to be equipped with two applications developed by the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs: the Regional Emergency Alert System (RSO) app, and Alarm112.

The RSO app warns users about weather conditions, traffic, or increased water levels. It also provides first-aid advice, as well as instructions on how to act in the event of a natural disaster.

The Alarm112 app, on the other hand, is supposed to make it easier to notify authorities about an emergency.

Both apps are already available and can be installed on Android-based devices. However, they are not very popular – so far, they have some 100,000 and 10,000 downloads respectively. The new regulation intends to change that. Whether someone wants it or not, both apps will have to be installed. An "authorized retailer" is to be responsible for putting the apps on every single phone.

The bill also wants to do away with the Government Security Center. Instead, the Ministry of Interior and Administration intends to establish a "24-hour state duty service". Among other things, it is supposed to be responsible for coordinating the exchange of information on civil protection, alerting and notifying the population of possible threats, as well as implementing emergency procedures and exercises.

In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, the deputy head of the ministry, Maciej Wąsik, said that the apps are "an essential element of public security".

Mr. Wąsik also added that every new phone already comes with various pre-installed apps "which can be launched or deleted". According to the deputy minister of interior, a social awareness campaign urging citizens to download the apps individually would be too costly. Wąsik stressed that the apps are "unique and good enough that they should be on every phone" and, he added, "they don’t come with any risks".

Admittedly, the Ministry of the Interior claims that it will be possible to delete the apps, while the project itself is supposed to be an implementation of EU requirements. The ministry does not specify, however, which requirements it is referring to, but it can be assumed that it is about the "European E112 Mobile Emergency Call Regulation", which came into force on March 17.

The regulation does not require any apps to be installed on mobile phones, only that smartphones sold in the European Union must be compatible with the Galileo satellite positioning system, which enables better connectivity with the 112 emergency system. "European E112 Mobile Emergency Call Regulation" forces smartphone manufacturers to improve the accuracy of the system's operation. Perhaps the Polish Ministry of Interior assumes that linking phones to the government emergency alert system fulfills that EU requirement.

"A completely unnecessary solution"

According to Andrzej Kozłowski, a cyber-security and disinformation expert associated with the Pułaski Foundation, the bill could have a detrimental effect on privacy.

- After the Pegasus surveillance scandal and the utter failure of the ProteGO Safe app, the level of public trust in government apps is really low. People are afraid that such apps can be used to spy on them- Kozłowski emphasizes.

The expert also points out a non-obvious effect of the new law should it come into force.

- It may turn out that people will simply buy phones in Germany or other countries, or on the black market. In an era of widespread online shopping, there is no problem buying a device abroad without having to worry that the government has uploaded its spying tools on it- he explains.

According to Mr. Kozłowski, the solution proposed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs is completely unnecessary, as the current government SMS notification system works perfectly. The introduction of an app to replace SMS notifications could also be a new form of digital exclusion.

- Many elderly people, who are most exposed to risks such as heat waves or hurricanes, for example, have smartphones but do not use any apps. For the 60- and 70-year-old generation, the phone is used primarily for calling and sending/receiving text messages. For these people, the current system is best. Introducing apps could result in digital exclusion- Kozłowski explains.

Importing the Chinese surveillance model

It is also worth noting that the phrasing of the bill is rather broad and vague. For example, it lacks a definition of an authorized retailer, so it is unclear who exactly will be required to install the app on a smartphone. It is also unclear what will happen if the electronics retailer sells the device without the app. The draft also fails to provide key information on whether it will be possible to access the app's source code.

The question also arises as to why there is no cooperation with Google or Apple (Google Play stores, AppStore) when it comes to introducing the proposed solution. The example from Ukraine shows that the introduction of similar solutions (bombing alerts) in cooperation with a third party and discussing it with the public increases trust in the app and influences willingness to use it.

After an unsuccessful attempt at convincing people to use government apps – as was the case, for example, with the ProteGO Safe app, which was part of the government’s pandemic response - the Polish government is reaching for authoritarian methods. The Interior Ministry's proposal raises concerns about attempts to implement a mass-surveillance system, much like the one in China.

The draft has just gone out for consultation.

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    This app will come handy with position tracking, contact lists, and back-door to private information. Before Pegasus case is fully investigated and people responsible for this invigilation prosecuted no Gov app should be considered or approved.
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