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South Africans are worried the government will use coronavirus phone tracking to spy on them

REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa locks down measures to restrict the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread. Mar. 23, 2020.
JohannesburgPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

South Africa’s government has to had to assure citizens it won’t spy on them after news that it plans to use contact tracing as part of the Covid-19 management strategy.

Published in the Government Gazette on Mar. 26, the initial direction was criticized for being too vague, and consequently for possibly facilitating unorthodox surveillance. The original directive forced telecommunications providers to give government access to their customers data in a plan to track the movement of South Africans through their mobile phones.

The idea was to be able to use location-based services to easily find recent contacts of Covid-19 coronavirus patients in a bid to control the spread of the disease.

Surveillance vs greater good

A week after the directive was shared, minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams confirmed amendments had made. “I want to say it up front that I know that most people have been concerned that ‘our government wants to spy on us’. This is not spying on anyone.”

South Africa’s department of Health will maintain a national database to enable the tracing of people who are known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with anyone who’s contracted Covid-19.

But being able to access people’s location and other personal information could potentially be an infringement of a citizen’s constitutional right to privacy in South Africa.

Local authorities used geo-location to find one of South Africa’s early cases for Covid-19 last month in Alexandra, one of the country’s most densely-populated and squalid townships in Johannesburg. The patient was placed under isolation but traveled 300 kilometers to his family in home in Limpopo.

Although he may already have transmitted the disease to other passengers during the commute from Alexandra to Limpopo, the health department was able to trace at least five people with whom he had come into close contract. These people, alongside his family members were tested and placed in isolation.

Rights vs responsibilities

Contact tracing is recommended by the WHO, and has been utilised by other countries in efforts to combat coronavirus.

South Korea’s handling of the epidemic is believed to be exemplary because they were quick to implement legislation that allowed health officials to aggressively trace the footsteps of citizens who test positive for an emerging infectious disease.

South Africa’s unique history with the anti-apartheid struggle and government surveillance of activists and others means there are additional sensitivities to take into account around privacy.

“South Africa has opted for a middle-ground approach to contact tracing,” says Livia Dyer, a partner at Bowmans law firm, .

The amended Disaster Management regulations recognize the right to privacy but asks citizens to make concessions until the state of emergency has passed, so that the right to life and health can be safeguarded.

Consequently, the Covid-19 Tracing Database, will be kept confidential. This is because it will include the names and surnames of those who have been tested for Covid-19, their ID numbers, addresses, cell phone numbers, Covid-19 test results and, importantly, the details of their known or suspected contacts.

Under provisions of this temporary regulation, health information, which is conventionally considered to be sensitive personal information, will only be processed for very limited purposes. This includes the exercise of legal rights and obligations and for historical, statistical and research purposes where a public interest is served.  Therefore, says Dyer, “contact tracing is not necessarily impermissible from a data protection and privacy perspective, provided that it is subject to strict controls.”

There are however still concerns about government’s contact tracing strategy.

The types of controls contained in the regulations include that the information may only be obtained, used or disclosed by authorized persons and where necessary for the purposes of addressing, preventing or combating the spread of Covid-19.

But, according to professor Co-Pierre Georg, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, the data may not be as secure as the state would hope. “If you collect all of this data in a central database, you create a massive cybersecurity risk. You will make it a very appealing target for any hacker out there.”

Citizens will not be able to give consent or decline for their information to be included in the tracing database, but the regulations stipulate that they will be notified when the time is right.

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