The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and Ministry of Health deplored an article by the Hong Kong-based Asia Times which reported that China was squeezing Cambodia to obtain private data accumulated from the country’s Covid-19 QR code-based location and contact tracing app.
“The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and the Ministry of Health completely dismiss the fabrications and exaggerations of this false information that is only intended to pollute society and public opinion as well as incite people to refuse to participate in the implementation of government measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Cambodia,” the ministries said in a statement on June 12.
On June 10, the Asia Times published an article entitled “China squeezes Cambodia for its Covid app data” saying Cambodia’s “Stop Covid” QR Code was for surveillance purposes rather than disease control.
Following the February 20 community outbreak of Covid-19, the government launched the app in an attempt to help prevent its further spread in Cambodia.
The app has users scan QR-codes assigned to physical locations such as shops when they enter them. If anyone who was present at a given location tests positive for Covid-19 then anyone else who checked in there at the same time can be quarantined and tested.
The Asia Times article notes that a report on April 6 by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the QR-code app raises serious concerns about privacy, intrusive data collection and population surveillance because it could put government critics and activists at greater risk.
“Shortly after the official announcement of the ‘Stop Covid-19’ app’s launch, Wang Wentian, the Chinese ambassador to Phnom Penh, met with Cambodian officials and requested access to the personal data collected via the new [Stop Covid QR-code] system, according to sources familiar with the request,” reported the Asia Times.
In response, the ministries said the Asia Times article was politically motivated.
“The telecoms and health ministries have not received any requests for data access in the QR-code system from the Chinese ambassador. We completely reject this fabrication and condemn the people who invented it,” they said in a joint statement.
The QR-code system being used in Cambodia is also used in many other countries throughout the region and the world to combat the pandemic. The system only identifies people by their phone numbers without collecting any other personal data or data on the user’s travel routes, the ministries said.
The introduction of the QR code system aims to protect the health of people in the event of a global epidemic as enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as other laws and regulations in force, they added.
“In fact, ministries, institutions, embassies, companies, national and international organisations and location owners have encouraged their citizens and staff to use it and participate in the government’s efforts to protect their personal safety and the public welfare by preventing the spread of Covid-19,” the statement said.
A telecoms ministry official who asked not to be named told The Post on June 13 that the article was nothing but a political stunt.
“It is unfortunate that an international news agency is saying these things. We set up this system to make sure that Covid-19 infections would be reduced. When someone is involved with someone else who may be at risk, then the person who has entered that location at the same time can be informed so they can protect themselves,” he said.