Pakistan deploys militant-tracking tech to hunt confirmed and suspected virus patients

Updated May 28 2020

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In this picture taken on May 18, 2020, a shopping mall official tags a scan sign on the floor at the main entrance of the Centaurus Mall. — AFP
In this picture taken on May 18, 2020, a shopping mall official tags a scan sign on the floor at the main entrance of the Centaurus Mall. — AFP
In this picture taken on May 18, 2020 a shopping mall official (unseen) uses a thermal scanner to check the temperature of shoppers before they enter at the Centaurus Mall. — AFP
In this picture taken on May 18, 2020 a shopping mall official (unseen) uses a thermal scanner to check the temperature of shoppers before they enter at the Centaurus Mall. — AFP

The intelligence services are deploying secretive surveillance technology normally used to locate militants to instead track coronavirus patients and the people they come into contact with.

In a programme publicly touted by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the government has turned to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for help in tackling the virus, which still is spreading at an accelerating rate across Pakistan.

Related: ‘Track and trace’

Details about the project have not been released, but two officials told AFP that intelligence services are using geo-fencing and phone-monitoring systems that ordinarily are employed to hunt high-value targets including homegrown and foreign militants.

Geo-fencing, a discreet tracking system that alerts authorities when someone leaves a specific geographic area, has helped officials monitor neighbourhoods on lockdown.

Authorities are also listening in to the calls of Covid-19 patients to monitor whether their contacts are talking about having symptoms.

“The trace-and-track system basically helps us track the mobile phones of corona patients as well as anyone they get in touch with before of after their disappearance,” an intelligence official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior security official told AFP that agencies are now “quite effectively” using the technology to track coronavirus cases.

“The government has been successful in tracing even those who tested positive but went into hiding,” the security official said.

A lack of awareness, stigma and fear have contributed to some people with symptoms not seeking treatment or even fleeing hospitals, while others who've had contact with virus patients have flouted self-isolation rules.

The prime minister recently praised the programme, which has come up against little public debate or scrutiny over its use in the virus fight.

“It was originally used against terrorism, but now it is has come in useful against coronavirus,” he said.

More than 61,000 people in Pakistan have tested positive for the disease and more than 1,200 patients have died.

But with testing still limited, officials worry the true numbers are much higher.

Concerns

Rights groups worry authorities, that are accused of holding a vast sway over many aspects of the country's cultural and political life, might abuse their sweeping surveillance powers to trace political dissidents.

Ex-senator Afrasiab Khattak told AFP that involving the ISI would spread unnecessary fear among the population.

“The task of tracking and tracing the patients and suspected cases should be dealt with by provincial governments and local communities — let intelligence agencies do their actual job,” he said.

Countries across the world have employed track-and-trace methods to control the virus's spread, raising privacy concerns.

Israel's intelligence services have been using counter-terrorism technology, including tracking mobile phones, prompting the Supreme Court to raise privacy concerns.

In Pakistan, authorities have struggled to present a cohesive national strategy to control the coronavirus. Prime Minister Imran was reluctant to call for a sweeping lockdown, arguing the impoverished country could not afford it. The premier has allowed businesses to reopen in phases, citing the economic impact on daily wage earners.

He also largely caved to pressure from the religious lobby, which pushed back against the closure of mosques.

Despite the prime minister's reluctance, the provinces imposed lockdowns to curb the spread but many citizens have simply ignored orders despite governments' pleas to stay indoors.