FORMER vice-president Kembo Mohadi launched a non-existent Covid-19 contact tracing mobile application a year ago, Zimbabwe Independent investigations have revealed.
The contact tracing application — Sotario, a contact tracing solution — was launched amid high hopes at Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT) on July 2 last year. It was the brainchild of the university’s students.
The application was supposed to give users room to enter names of their contacts and generate public Covid-19 red zones, which are areas the patient would have spent a considerable amount of time.
Mohadi — who presided over the launch – was accompanied by Mashonaland West provincial Minister of State Mary Mliswa-Chikoka, deputy Minister of Lands Vangelis Haritatos, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa, and Innovation, Science and Technology minister Amon Murwira.
The high-powered delegation also unveiled the Covid-19 Pandemic Information Dissemination cartoon magazine as the government was in a desperate bid to find solutions to combat the spread of the virus during the country’s first wave that winter.
Official data indicates that a total of 101 711 infections and 3 280 deaths have been recorded as at July 27 against 3 169 confirmed cases and 67 deaths recorded by July last year.
While there have been multiple measures to combat the spread of the virus from safety protocols to vaccination, the government has been silent on the contact tracing application that could have supplemented existing efforts.
Investigations by the Zimbabwe Independent unearthed that the mobile application never operated following its launch by Mohadi last year.
There are no traces of a Zimbabwean contact tracing application — Sotario — across mobile application stores following an intensive online search.
Mobile applications are available on Google Play Store for Android devices, Apple App Store for iOS users, BlackBerry App World for BlackBerry-friendly applications, Windows Store for Windows phone users, Ovi Store and Amazon App Store among others, which all drew blanks.
Investigations further revealed that the project only managed to reach Beta trials stage.
Beta version is the preview version of the software released to the public before the final release. It includes almost all of the features in which development is not yet completed and may still have some errors.
Therefore, the version is only available to the group of people who volunteer to enrol for Beta testing before the final application is released.
Murwira — whose ministry the project falls under — did not respond to numerous calls and text messages sent to him regarding the application.
CUT marketing and public relations director Musekiwa Cliton Tapera requested for more time to gather information on the issue.
“I was there when it was launched but what happened thereafter I do not know. Give me some time to gather the facts from the guys who were in charge with the project,” Tapera said.
He was still to get feedback from the responsible departments by time of going to print.
The Independent managed to track down one of the students who developed the application.
CUT information technology student Christopher Chinyamukobvu said the university “side-lined” the project.
“It is not operational. The project was abandoned while it was still in Beta trial (version). I do not know why,” Chinyamukobvu said.
He added, “The organisation we were working with, CUT just stopped responding about (the app), or facilitating.”
The 21-year-old ICT student said he never attempted to approach the ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology over the matter citing protocol issues.
“We did not try to approach the ministry. The university promised to take care of that; you know diplomatic stuff, approaching who matters and all. Then it dragged from July until November 2020. By that time everything was called off, frustration had kicked in, so I just let it go. But yes, we never approached the ministry, however, I am not sure if CUT did, which I doubt though,” Chinyamukobvu said.
Mohadi, who was the national task force chairperson on Covid-19 then, said he was delighted to “launch the Covid-19 Contact Tracing Software and the Covid-19 pandemic Information Dissemination cartoon magazine by the (CUT) university that seeks to help address the challenges at hand”.
African member states such as Ghana and South Africa have already made strides in the use of contact tracing apps.
Contact tracing applications work by gathering information of people who test positive for Covid-19. Data on their status and locations which they frequent is then shared to all people who are in their mobile contacts.
However, internet governance consultant Koliwe Majama said while contact tracing apps are good to supplement existing remedies towards the fight against the pandemic, there are serious concerns regarding privacy.
Majama said concerns borders around consent, clarity on data storage and use.
“While it looks like a good thing, a lot is not known about the functionality of the contact tracing apps. The apps collect data not limited to one’s location, which means your movements are being traced. So think about all those places and people we secretly meet or visit.
“We do not know how that information will be used, where it will be stored and how much of it will be exposed. It is imperative that information that is gathered is used for the specific reasons that it was gathered for,” Majama said.
She said there must be specific laws that regulate the use of the cyber space and data protection first before such apps can be used. Several cases have emerged in the country where government ends up using data gathered for purposes divorced from those intended. Such has been the case with electoral registration data that was later used by the ruling party to send direct campaign messages to mobile users during the run-up to the 2018 polls. Majama said there is also sensitivity related to Covid-19 as many do not want their status to be made public in fear of stigma.
She further warned that “contact tracing apps have a potential threat of mass surveillance especially in countries with no data protection laws.”
Zimbabwe is in the process of crafting its Cyber-security and Data Protection Bill, where government has been criticised for trying to use the law to spy on citizens.
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