Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Coronavirus: This tiny country is posting the names and locations of quarantined citizens

Balkan authorities resort to publishing personal data online to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

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In an effort to curb the coronavirus outbreak, authorities in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro have chosen a drastic course of action.

The government is publishing lists containing the personal data of self-quarantined citizens who are thought to have come into contact with the potentially deadly COVID-19 coronavirus.

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The self-isolating citizens are named on the basis of their recent travel history, having returned from countries deemed to have a high rate of infection.

As of last Saturday, the names and locations of nearly 6,000 people have been made available online for everyone to see on the Montenegrin government's website.

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With a population of just over 600,000, that means roughly 1% of residents have been named. To date, Montenegro has registered 70 COVID-19 cases, with one fatality.

The names on the website are grouped by locality and location, to allow other citizens to check on potential cases in their area. The site also provides the start and end dates of their isolation, presumably so that people in the locality can identify those breaching their quarantine.

According to the Montenegrin authorities, at this point, the country is faced with the tough choice between the health of the citizens and the protection of their personal data.

"We assessed that the right to health and life was above the right to unconditional protection of personal data," Montenegrin prime minister Dusko Markovic said.

"That's why now's not the time for legal nuances, but for saving lives."

The country's agency in charge of anti-contagion efforts decided to publish the personal data last week, after getting approval from the Montenegrin Data Protection Agency. However, according to digital-rights watchdogs, several aspects of this measure are problematic. 

"There's no adequate legal basis for the public processing of health data on the internet because it falls into a separate category of data and enjoys a higher level of protection," Balkans-based SHARE Foundation, an organization that promotes digital rights and online freedoms, told ZDNet in a statement.

"The goal of this measure is also controversial. Is it the public shaming of people who have violated the quarantine, which can be concluded from the statements of Montenegrin officials, or is this a measure that will bring concrete results."

The drastic measure has also divided the Montenegrin society itself, with authorities taking the risk that they will ultimately be called to account if it is proven that they have violated the country's constitution.

"Those close to the government claim that the public condemnation factor will make people in self-isolation hesitate before deciding to violate the quarantine," Montenegro-based political scientist Luka Nikolic tells ZDNet.  

"On the other hand, human-rights activists and some citizens believe it's unacceptable and inefficient to publicly label people who have not committed any acts against the law. But when the crisis ends, there'll be an assessment of whether this action was useful or not."

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Meanwhile, in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, local authorities this week took a similar step, publishing the names and addresses of those in self-isolation. Initially, the list also contained phone numbers, but they were subsequently deleted.

However, Bosnian federal authorities later decided that from now on it will only publish the personal data of those who try to violate the self-isolation measures. 

"It is our opinion that it is not illegal to publish a minimum of data about people who violate the law," Bosnia's Agency for Personal Data Protection said in a statement.

"They are violating the law of those that are protecting themselves and are saving lives. Consequently, the public interest outweighs the right for the protection of personal data."

The SHARE Foundation notes that governments need to be extremely careful about publishing citizens' personal data.

"The government might delete the data from the site once citizens are cured, but this cannot be guaranteed for the rest of the internet. This way, the data could remain public forever."