Covid-19: Surveillance risks rights violations

By Sello Rasethaba Time of article published Apr 4, 2020

Share this article:

�IN HIS LATEST nationwide update on the coronavirus lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Using mobile technology, an extensive tracing system will be rapidly deployed to trace those who have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases and to monitor the geographical location of new cases in real time.”
Should South Africans be worried about their rights?
The challenge facing government is what legal and constitutional mechanism will it use to allow the application of mobile technology for an extensive tracing system?
Organisations like the Right2Know Campaign and Privacy International have argued in courts that “mass surveillance is inherently unconstitutional”.
So the government has to tread carefully and ensure that �it is covered for all legal avenues before embarking on this journey, because in my opinion the “extensive tracing system” is badly needed if we are to defeat the pandemic.
This will also require the support of the other two arms of the government, the judiciary and Parliament.
Professor Jane Duncan, in her book titled �Stopping the Spies: Constructing and resisting the surveillance state in South Africa�, argues that the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (Rica) process and institutions are run down, and the public safety and security risks are huge. Rica came into effect in 2009 and serves as the basis for the lawful interception of citizens’ communications.
It is said that the “impact is mostly felt by South Africans when they have to produce identification and proof of residence when registering a new cellphone number”.
Recently, I visited a police station and �was required to enter my details in a book in addition to being given a sanitiser to wipe my hands.
The same happened �on the day prior to the lockdown, when I was required to enter my particulars in a book at a restaurant.
I later discovered that this was done to ensure that the authorities were able to trace those who had been in a facility if an individual tested positive for Covid-19. It looks like the government intends to replace these manual systems with an extensive tracing system using mobile technology.
This is a noble and innovative idea, but it comes with its own risks where it can be abused.
This as the high court ruled after an amaBhungane court challenge last year that part of Rica was unconstitutional in that it may violate millions of people’s right to privacy and lead to surveillance abuses.
Lucien Pierce, a data protection expert, recently asked the question on social media: “Should we be worried that the South African State will now use mobile phones to trace us during the Covid-19 pandemic?”
However, other countries have gone the tracking route amid this crisis.
According to media reports, the UK National Health Services (NHS) is developing a coronavirus tracking app that would use mobile data from Google and British Telecom.
Meanwhile, Kate Kozuch wrote in Tom’s Guide that in the US government officials and health experts were in talks with tech giants, including Google and Facebook, about how to access �American�s’ phone location data to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
It is also reported that Israel’s Cabinet has authorised the Shin Bet security agency to use its phone snooping tactics on coronavirus patients.
The Chinese government, too, has reportedly launched an app, the “close contact detector” to help combat the spread of the coronavirus.  
Some experts have raised privacy concerns over these measures, but were outweighed by public health benefits amid what the World Health Organisation has dubbed a global health emergency.
The advantage that South Africa has is that we can learn from BRICS partners China and Russia on the success they achieved in dealing with the pandemic.
The South African government should with immediate effect invite Chinese and Russian doctors and technology experts to assist in finding solutions to this pandemic.
In conclusion, Lucien Pierce offers the following answer as to whether the people of South Africa should be worried: “In dire circumstances such as these, even the most ardent proponent of privacy rights will concede that the appropriate use of location data to combat Covid-19 is justified.
“The State just needs to assure us that the way it will collect the location data, what it will do with it, how long it will keep it and how securely it will be kept, will be in accordance with international best practice. Of course, if we all stay home, stay safe and avoid contracting Covid-19, then there may not be any need for the State to collect our location data… we hope.”
The government is already developing the tracking technology.
This week it was reported that Telkom has announced a new partnership with Samsung and the government to develop a novel track and trace solution to identify people who may have contracted Covid-19.
Apparently, the track and trace system is being developed alongside the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and takes account of South Africa’s unique circumstances, which include high-income inequality, poverty and overcrowding.
The government needs to give other operators an opportunity to offer their solutions and not solely take the Telkom-Samsung solution as the only one. Otherwise, the government runs the risk of being challenged in court if it procures the Telkom-Samsung track and trace system without following due process, because there are other solutions on the market.
However, at the end of the day when all is said, it is important for every nation to collect the data, because the ability to save lives depends on the confidence and information about what has actually transpired.
The development of medical therapies and public-health measures to combat the virus depends on data, so let us give the government the space to use an extensive tracing system through mobile technology.

Sello Mashao Rasethaba is the chair�person of the South African United Business Confederation and first chair�person of the State Information Technology Agency. He writes in his personal capacity.

Share this article: