Row over contact-tracing app threatens to blow hole in Thailand’s COVID defence
Thailand’s much-touted contact-tracing app, MorChana, risks losing its “national hero” status as questions emerge about its efficacy and transparency.
Last Friday (Jan 15), the MorChana Volunteer Team abruptly announced the government had taken full control of the app, adding they hoped its potential to alert people of COVID-19 risks would be maximised. The app uses a red, orange, yellow and green colour code to show users their risk level.
The app’s handover sparked wild speculation that authorities were meddling too much in the management of MorChana, which has already got 7 million downloads.
Suspicions over government interference were heightened when an independent academic close to the MorChana Volunteer Team said the app would be “useless” if the Disease Control Department (DCD) did not use it to provide information on infected people.
“There is no use labelling an area a red zone. It’s a person that is infected, not a place,” Loy Chunpongtong told a TV reporter.
Responding to this open quarrel, many users said they were abandoning MorChana over concerns about its transparency and efficacy.
What went wrong?
When COVID-19 first hit Thailand early last year, expert volunteers offered to help the country pull through this crisis. Leveraging their expertise, they won backing from the public and private sectors and came up with the MorChana app, which was launched in April last year. This partnership lasted about nine months, until the government took sole control this month.
On January 7, Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesman Dr Taweesin Visanuyothin stepped up efforts to push the app, even indicating it was mandatory and failure to use it could land people in legal trouble.
Four days later, the Digital Government Development Agency – which is tasked with managing MorChana – posted a message on its website calling on people to download the app.
Behind the scenes, sources said the government’s approach to managing the app had caused rifts with MorChana’s developers, prompting them to pull out of the project.
DCD director-general Dr Opart Karnkawinpong recently hinted at quarrels and moves to mend fences.
“We are in the process of further developing the app together. So there may have been some misunderstanding between software developers and the Public Health Ministry. We will address these issues and consult each other to promote good understanding,” Opart said.
MorChana updates infection status
The Digital Economy and Society (DES) Ministry insists the app’s developers still support the government, and also that it provides the latest data on users’ infection status.
“We don’t display just green [very low risk] status,” DES Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta told a press conference on Monday (Jan 18).
At the same event, DCD deputy director-general Dr Preecha Prempree said a user’s infection status is only changed once a hospital confirms the infection and local officials forward the information to the DES and the app’s developers.
Buddhipongse said the government had taken sole control of the app because of a significant rise in users, and because it wants to ensure users’ privacy is properly protected.
According to the ministry, the app is now linked to the government’s data centre and cloud service because its original cloud setup came close to being overwhelmed by the number of users.
In response to the move, MorChana has stopped asking for personal information during registration and some features have been removed to ensure privacy is strictly protected. The app now just identifies and alerts people when they visit an area in which infection has been found.
MorChana uses GPS, Bluetooth and QR Code technology for speedy contact tracing, which has played a crucial role in curbing the spread of COVID-19. The virus has so far infected more than 10,000 people in Thailand and caused 70 deaths.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk