Tracking Covid-19

26 Apr 2020

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The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

SEVERAL Pakistanis have received text messages alerting them of possibly having come in contact with a Covid-19-positive person, and recommending self-quarantine and a visit to the health facilities in case of symptoms. In times of a pandemic, technology is being used by governments to disseminate information, conduct contact tracing through surveillance methods, and solicit voluntary information from citizens.

It is essential that while fulfilling its duty to protect citizens’ right to life, the government acts proportionately, transparently and legally in a rights-respecting manner.

Contact tracing via phones has been made possible by the government’s Digital Pakistan team which is helping the Ministry of National Health Services to send text messages to potential contacts through the PTA, which sends specific phone numbers to telecom companies who provide geo-fenced location data regarding concerned citizens and send them and people in their vicinity these alerts. The location is detected by the telecom company through mobile phone towers that transmit signals to a user’s phone, also known as Cell Site Location Identification.

However, a limitation of this method is accuracy; the location is accurate up to a 100- to 200-metre radius, and varies depending on population density. The radius of a tower’s area is much larger in rural areas, whereas in urban areas due to population density it narrows down. So, this method cannot predict contact close enough for Covid-19 transmission with accuracy; and could cause undue panic.

Transparency is essential in the government’s methods.

This brings up the issue of transparency. There is little public awareness as to how the government is accessing data and determining who to send these messages to. In an example of proactive efficiency, those with a travel history received calls from the district administration asking about possible symptoms, whether quarantine and distancing were practised, and if passengers were screened at the port of entry.

In one instance, a passenger’s sibling got a call when the initial call to the passenger was not attended. Hence, it would be reasonable to assume that the government accessed information from airlines, immigration authorities and the Nadra database to identify family information, and called on the number biometrically linked to the citizen’s CNIC. These SOPs should be made public as citizens have the right to information under Article 19-A of the Constitution.

It is important that telecom companies act transparently and alert their users to the kind of tracking taking place and make the methodology public. The GSMA, the global association of mobile phone operators, recommends all data by companies should be aggregated, anonymised or at least pseudonymnised so that personal data cannot be attributed to an individual, but heat maps of population movements are tracked.

The Digital Pakistan team has shown competence and leadership during the pandemic as the team localised a WhatsApp helpline linked to the health ministry in which an automated chat bot provides authentic information, including an updated list of cases aggregated by province. They have also launched an Android application for phones in which location detected by GPS and cellular location data is used to give a ‘radius alert’ to app users if there is a patient in the user’s area within a 300m radius.

The advantage of an app is that its opt-in use is voluntary as the user downloads and uses it with consent. But tech-based tracking has its limitations, especially in Pakistan. GPS location can only be tracked outdoors and is still not precise; much less than Bluetooth-enabled apps such as Singa­pore’s TraceTo­ge­ther. This also means that the contact information of all users is stored and vulnerable.

However, because the proportion of population that uses smartphones is very low here, and both technologies rely on the assumption that an adequate number of tests for the virus have been conducted, it leaves out a large number of asymptomatic and untested people. Hence, conventional on-ground solutions must remain the focus of the fight against the virus in Pakistan.

Lastly, it is of utmost importance that health-related surveillance take place, under the law, while respecting the dignity and privacy of citizens as guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution.

The IT ministry has begun a consultation process for a data protection law. This must include specifics on health-related privacy and tracking, and put a legal time limit on the use of data acquired during a pandemic. Otherwise, as the prime minister’s allusion to the use of the state’s capability of tracking terrorists for the pandemic demonstrates, we risk ceding excessive personal data to the state under the pretext of security and health, with plenty of room for abuse. The government should ensure that it prioritises tracking the pandemic, and not citizens.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter:****@UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2020