Covid-19 contact tracing and your privacy

Published Apr 14, 2020



With the establishment of the COVID-19 Information Centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research keeping track of and identifying infection hotspots in tandem with mobile phone companies to enable contact tracing. What implications does this have on South Africans privacy and will it work?

The Presidents plan

President Ramaphosa was extremely clear about the approach the country is taking when he addressed the nation informing about the extended lockdown and why. He stated; “We are learning both from the experiences of other countries and from the evidence we now have about the development of the pandemic in South Africa”.

The three-part strategy is to (1) intensify public health response to reduce the speed of infections, (2) comprehensive economic support programmes to support businesses and citizens affected by the pandemic and (3) increased social support to protect the poor and vulnerable.

The intensification of public health as a response to reduce infections is being played out systematically to screen and test those in hospitals and communities. This is evident in certain communities already across the country.

Ramaphosa stated; “at all times, we will observe the human rights of all people,” right before he went on to inform the country how the strategies are informed by real-time data.

The establishment of COVID-19 Information Centre, will keep hold of all of this data. The screening, testing, isolation, and hospitalisation of infected in South Africa. They will collect data to identify infection hotspots, the location of those who have tested positive and who these Covid-19 infected have come into contact with, to focus resources where it is actually needed.

With data being collected from the assistance of mobile telephony companies like mobile networks.

Ramaphosa is describing what’s known as contract tracing, but what is it? How does it work? And will it work?

Contact Tracing and South Korea

The fact that South Africa is using evidence from other countries who have contained the pandemic as successfully as possible, and learning from those who were not. Can point us in the direction of South Korea to explain contact tracing and how it worked.

On February 17 South Korea had 30 confirmed cases, by February 29 the country had 3 150 cases. And its latest figures on April 13, is sitting at 10 537 confirmed cases. A dramatic decrease was achieved from being en route to being one of the highest infected countries, considering that in 12 days 3 120 confirmed cases were reported. And in the following 44 days, the infected cases grew by only 7 417.

Dr. Kim Woo Joo of the Korea University Guro Hospital stated that the country learned some important lessons from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak in 2015. “Lessons learned from MERS outbreak in 2015. First one is diagnostic test, it’s very essential. We developed a lot of diagnostic tests and distributed in every hospital”.

South Korea managed to contain the outbreak and develop a concise response to identify human to human transmission and surface transmission which was turned into law, the outbreak of MERS ended in the same year that it began, 2015.

On February 17 when there were only 30 cases in South Korea, the government began developing thousands of tests that were distributed to public and private hospitals which joined forces across the country. All of the tests were mainly free of charge. 600 locations provided Covid-19 screening at a rate of 20 000 being conducted per day.

They labeled one positive case as patient 31. Tracked her movements to a church service she went to, then identified those who she came into contact with and tested them irrespective of whether they showed symptoms or not. Those who tested positive were isolated and treated in their home or a government dedicated facility. The process repeated itself over and over again, and what is known as contact tracing.

In regards to non-human to human transmission, The subsequent laws implemented after the 2015 MERS outbreak allowed the government to collect data and security footage of those who tested positive. To identify where they went, what they touched. And then proceeded to test individuals who were in the infected path, and begin contact tracing once more.

This allowed the government to comprehensively track Covid-19’s movement, it allowed the virus to become visible.

All this data of paths where the infected traveled is shared to the public to alert them to stay away from the area - specific shops and pharmacies for example. It is compiled onto websites, apps and the South Korean government even sends text messages if you are near the location where there were confirmed cases. This also allowed no lockdown to be implemented.

Joo Woo states; “If there is some confirmed case found near my office, they message my smartphone. There is a confirmed case near your place. Be cautious”.

Despite it being a direct violation of their privacy, the country has a homogenous culture with shared interests. Where they view public health trumping privacy in an outbreak.

Jun Eun-Kyeong, of the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said; “Since the disease can infect others, it is true that public interests tend to be emphasized more than human rights”.

This highlights several imperative components that allowed the country to perform such a mammoth task. From having adequate infrastructure and resources, shared values, and an ability to execute. It also highlights that its citizen’s location data is being collected irrespective of infection, as well as the collection of visual evidence in the form of video footage, along with facial recognition software,

South Africans privacy in a pandemic

With no exaggeration, the strategy in South Korea worked and provided an extremely accurate number of infected cases. The South African government, based on President Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on April 9 seems to be following a similar route. So what about our privacy? How long have they been collecting our data? Who will have access to it, and for how long?

Kate O’Regan, a Covid-19 judge, in an interview with eNCA on April 12, acknowledges that privacy rights are implicated by cellphone companies communicating your location data to the South African government. Yet that privacy is not absolute and that there are times when it can be limited.

O’Regan goes on to say; “And here one of the most important reasons for limiting privacy rights is another right in the constitution, which is the right to access to healthcare. And what is clear, is if the pandemic is out of control in South Africa, then all of our rights of access to health care are going to be threatened. It’s in those circumstances, and it’s not unusual, where two rights come in conflict. Where you need to try and build a system which protects both of them to the greatest extent possible”.

O’Regan explains the safeguards South Africans have. Of which mainly includes the creation of a dedicated judge, the sunset clause outlining how data collection has to end when the country is not in a state of disaster anymore, and the assurance that those whose information is collected will be informed that it has occurred.

Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, echoes these sentiments.

“So, if tomorrow President Cyril Ramaphosa says we are doing away with the national disaster [declaration] and we are going back to our normal lives, they cease to exist and the data must be deleted,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

She goes on to reiterate the collection of geolocation data; “It [geolocation] is only for those that have tested positive because if you do not do it, there is going to be more infections that you could have controlled”.

And assured that the general public will not be monitored, only those who are infected.

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