ADM Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Slovenia

New report: 'Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective' by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung – a special issue of the upcoming Automating Society Report 2020, to be published in October.

Country analysis: Slovenia

By Lenart J. Kučić

A dramatic increase in police powers

In March 2020, the Slovenian government proposed a first draft of the Act on intervention measures to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 disease for citizens and the economy. The text was submitted to the National Assembly for consideration and adoption under an emergency procedure.

However, the Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman, and some privacy experts soon noticed that the proposed draft also included two articles that would dramatically increase the powers of the police.

Article 103 suggested that the police could use various methods to ensure that citizens respect the quarantine and the Communicable Diseases Act.  Among other measures, they can also use face recognition to identify individuals they have stopped, enter their houses or apartments, limit their movements, and collect and process personal information such as medical data from the National Institute of Public Health.

Article 104 went even further by suggesting that the police could trace the location of an individual’s mobile phone without a court warrant.

All the suggested measures were introduced using an emergency procedure – without any consultations or public debates. As a result, the Information Commissioner commented that the anti-COVID-19 measures were, potentially, an attempt to “establish a police state”. The commissioner considered the new police powers to be too broad and, potentially, unconstitutional and undemocratic.

The Human Rights Ombudsman wrote that it is hard to believe that such measures are really necessary and proportional (both institutions were not consulted during the process). Members of the Institute of Criminology also published critical commentary, stating that mass surveillance is not compatible with European legal culture.

Article 104 was removed from the amended act because of strong criticism from the public and the opposition political parties. However, article 103 relating to the powers of the police remained in the “Corona-act” that was adopted in April 2020.

The looming spectre of a mandatory tracking app

Furthermore, the government insisted that contact tracing applications are necessary to help health officials stop the pandemic. They also suggested that citizens will have to install such an application in order to travel across the country (between cities and municipalities). The data from the application would be collected and used by the National Institute of Public Health, but the police would also be allowed to access the database and exchange the information with the Institute.

In July, the government adopted another package of anti-corona measures, which provided a legal basis for introducing the mobile application for contact tracing. According to the new law, the app is obligatory for citizens who are tested positive for the coronavirus or who are in quarantine. The legislation package was adopted before the application was even developed, introduced, and tested. The opposition parties said the obligatory use of the application could breach personal data protection rights.

The information commissioner as many other experts and activists criticized this decision as well.

The minister of Public Administration Boštjan Koritnik later said that the use of application will be voluntary for everyone, including those who have been quarantined or confirmed to be infected with COVID-19. But the law still required obligatory use at the time of his press conference.

The minister also said that the application will not use a GPS system and the storage of geolocation data will not be enabled. Also, Slovenia will use the open source solution that was first developed by Germany. But he did not address any criticisms regarding the police use of the data. The voluntary app, called #OstaniZdrav (#StayWell) has been launched on Google’s Play Store on August 17, with 5.000 downloads over the first 24 hours.

Anti-government protests potentially in danger

The new legislation could also allow police to access other kinds of personal information and, potentially, curb future anti-government protests.

The expansion of police powers thus remains problematic, especially considering that the new Slovenian government, formed just before the pandemic, has used the virus outbreak to enforce emergency measures and limit citizen’s rights.

When the first groups of citizens started protesting against the government in April 2020, the minister for interior affairs, Aleš Hojs, took to Twitter to demand that the police should use their new and existing powers to identify and prosecute protesters, e.g., to collect and analyze all available images from both traditional and social media.

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Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective is a special issue of the report Automating Society 2020 by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung, to be published in October. Subscribe to the our newsletter to be alerted when the report is out.