When Your Freedom Depends on an App: How Government-Mandated Apps Can be Used for Mass Surveillance

When the coronavirus started to spread around the world, almost the immediate response of many countries has been to enforce the use of Covid-19 tracing apps in their populations.

The idea was that this technology would help identify the people who have potentially been exposed to the virus and ultimately contain it.

Well, as we all know, that was a total failure and, instead, people largely rejected these apps.

But before that, check out these 15 easy ways to make your Android smartphone or tablet more private and secure.

Why Did Covid-19 Tracing Apps Fail Miserably?

Tracing Apps

To say that people were unenthusiastic about installing tracing apps on their smartphones that the government could use to track where they are going or where they've been would be a huge understatement.

Study after study has shown time and again the total rejection that users had of this idea.

One study, published by VoxEU and CEPR (Centre for Economic Policy Research), made a cross-country comparison of Covid-19contact-tracing apps. The study covered Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Ireland as the EU countries that were hit the most by the virus and have consequently had some of the strongest tracking programs in the EU and Russia, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea outside the EU, with their own, different (but no less effective) methods and approaches to tracking.

The study, written by Margherita Russo, Claudia Cardinale Ciccotti, Fabrizio de Alexandris, Antonella Gjinaj, Giovanni Romanello, Antonio Scatorchia and Giorgio Terranova, found that the adoption rate (the percentage of people who downloaded and used the app) was way under the 60% threshold that is usually considered the minimum for it to be effective.

The percentage was highest in Australia, 26.6%, followed by Ireland's 26.3% and 21.7% in Germany, while in France it was only 3.3%.

Another study, by IEEE, named "Requirements, Politics, or Individualism: What Drives the Success of Covid-19 Contact-Tracing Apps?", investigated the user trust in different Covid-19 contact-tracing apps based on their user ratings.

Here is a table showing the average ratings for Google and iOS users of various contact-tracing apps:

contact-tracing apps

And the average star rating for selected apps on Google Play and Apple Store:

Google Play and Apple Store:

One of the authors of the study, a senior lecturer at the Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, Muneera Bano said:

Coming from a socio-technical research background, we were intrigued initially to study the contact-tracing app when the Australian Government launched the CovidSafe app in April 2020. There was a clear resistance from many citizens in Australia in downloading the app, citing concerns regarding trust and privacy.

When Your Freedom Depends on an App

GPS monitoring  app

Now, it should be noted that the study was written and published before the vaccine was introduced and severe social distancing was seen as the only (or at least the easiest) way to stop the spread of the virus.

Imagine, however, that your freedom depends on an app and that app not working properly.

At least with Covid-19 contract-tracing apps, people had the choice whether they want to use it or not (as we saw, most opted not to).

Let's say you're on parole, however, and you had to install an app on your smartphone that would monitor and report your whereabouts, only that the system often mistakenly reports you not at home.

This is the problem that many former inmates who were forced to download an app called Telmate Guardian on their smartphone devices faced.

Buying a Smartphone: Not an Insignificant Task

That's not mentioning that many of them had to buy a smartphone in the first place, which is not an insignificant task for someone who has just served a sentence and is having problems integrating back into society.

One user, who wanted to remain anonymous, said:

Guardian cost me my job. At night I couldn't sleep and then at work I'd have to pull my phone out all the time.

According to users, most of whom are former inmates and are required by law to download it, the app would demand that they check-in several times per day, including in the middle of the night, or even falsely determine they were violating their at-home orders based on poor geolocation service.

All of this put incredible stress and pressure on them (as it could get them back to jail, where they just served a sentence).

A review done by security experts from Barracuda Networks, Gizmodo and a penetration testing company Netragard showed that the app was severely privacy-intrusive, in addition to having "sloppy" and irresponsive" code.

For example, the app can record and store audio from the smartphone microphone, without the user's knowledge, even if the device is in standby or sleep mode.

Furthermore, the app requests access to several functions on the user's smartphone, including camera, audio, WiFi and Bluetooth, and, if the device is "jailbroken", the app gains access to "super user" account, which gives it permission to read, download and modify files on the device, including photos, videos, media files, text messages and contact information.

Basically, it can listen in on their private conversation.

(Find out what 14 smart things you should do to secure your home wireless network)

The reviews on Google Play and Apple Store also don't paint a very pretty picture of the app, with most of them being negative. On Google Play, the average rating is just above 3 stars (out of 87 reviews), while on Apple Store it is 2.8 (from 11 reviews), with most users complaining about the poor functionality, lack of control, the amount of access that the app has and the overall lack of privacy.


The amount of control and access to our private data that apps on our phones have is nothing short of alarming.

But at least it's not like your freedom depends on an app, right?

Perhaps not, but if you are giving apps, websites and services access to too much of your data and the ability to listen to your private conversation, you are essentially waiving away your freedoms, not to mention the potential for mass surveillance through our phones that this brings.

Stop doing that. At least you have a choice of what you want to put on your devices and can decide who to share your data with.

CTemplar Android and iOS apps both use end-to-end encryption, full anonymity and zero data access, along with open-source code and a simple-to-use interface. Try them out today and start protecting your data.