THERE seems no doubt that state authorities see the threat posed by the spreading Covid-19 contagion as serious in the extreme, indeed one that is on par with national security imperatives. Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed during a telethon on Thursday that in order to reinforce the efforts against the pandemic, the ISI has given the government access to the track and trace technology it employs in its anti-terrorism operations. Mr Khan, who earlier in the day had been given a briefing at the intelligence agency’s headquarters, said the system would enable computer tracking of coronavirus patients.
The public health crisis engulfing the country is undeniably grave. However, there will be a time after Covid-19, and the prime minister’s rather casual disclosure on live TV belies the profound and conceivably long-term ramifications of using this technology as a pandemic-fighting measure. Unless appropriate safeguards are instituted, employing a system used for hunting down terrorists to target possible coronavirus patients is a disturbing new trajectory. Fundamental rights are often sacrificed at the altar of fighting militancy, and the approach is unlikely to be different when the same tools are being deployed against the contagion. History is replete with instances where emergency situations have been seized upon by states to justify and then normalise extraordinary measures. Moreover, a captive citizenry can be manipulated into ‘willingly’ ceding its personal freedoms on one pretext or another. That leeway can be used to cast the net wider and more expediently. Today, it may be possible Covid-19 patients; tomorrow, tax evaders; after that, political opponents may become the target — in short, this could be the slippery slope to an authoritarian state. As it is, no legislation for personal data protection has yet been enacted in Pakistan, even though it is sorely needed. Unlike traditional human intelligence, modern technology enables the monitoring of citizens around the clock. Countries like China have successfully used invasive mobile tracking and mass surveillance tools such as facial recognition cameras to corral suspected coronavirus cases, and everyone with whom these individuals have come in contact. There is no word yet on what the intelligence agency’s ‘track and trace’ system entails. However, there must be more transparency on this score: the people have a right to know the extent to which their privacy is being compromised. The government should also guarantee that after this crisis is over, the intelligence technology will revert to its originally intended use.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020