As we struggle to make sense of measures that could help flatten the curve amid rising cases of coronavirus in India, contact tracing is emerging as an important ally in containing COVID-19. Given the contagious nature of the novel virus, aggressive surveillance strategies that track the movements, locations and collect personal data of potential patients are being hailed as a heroic sacrifice the society must make. After India launched its Aarogya Setu app last week, which quickly assumed a status as the world’s most downloaded app, Indian authorities are now preparing to programme special Fitbit-like coronavirus wristbands embedded with the app that can monitor movements of any suspected patients.
A document released by the Broadcast Engineering Consultant India Limited (BECIL), which is working on making these bands commercially viable, have described the device as an “intelligence investigation platform and tactical tool to detect, prevent and investigate threats to national security using CDR, IPDR, Tower, Mobile Phone Forensics Data.”
However, this strategy is kind of sketchy given that the hardware requirements of this device demand data on the daily routines of those wearing them. The document outlines that the tracking device would be able to identify the suspect’s behaviour, see how they spend their time every hour for every day of the week, what they eat, where they work, exercise and even sleep at night. In its effort to trace whether the suspect has been to any high-risk location, it will also identify everyone the suspect has been in contact with, from close friends to cab drivers. The information collected will also be used to determine common friends for multiple coronavirus patients.
It’s understandable that given the uncertainty of the situation and new data that reveals 80 percent of patients are asymptomatic, we would assume it’s okay to ignore any privacy concerns for what we believe is the greater good. While collecting this data could help medical workers monitor patients in home quarantines and hospitals, as well as keep people informed about how safe their surrounding area is, the reason privacy experts worry about them being misused is because India doesn’t have any law on data privacy.
This means that while the government has access to all our information, including when we eat, sleep and shit, there is no transparency as to how it will be used and regulated, or for how long this data will remain with them once the situation stabilises. Even as supporters argue that since this information is anonymised, it can’t be used against anyone, given that these movement-measuring apps can zero in on someone’s location, as well as expose anyone the person has had contact with, it’s difficult to hide their identities. In the long run, this could lead to ostracisation and witch hunts because ultimately the issue is not about collecting privacy-intruding data, but rather about keeping people informed about where it’s going, who has access to it and what it’s going to be used for.
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