Coronavirus News Africa

Government data tracking during Covid-19 poses risks, says researcher

Telecommunication lockdown regulations aimed at fighting Covid-19 and aid contact-tracing efforts pose the risk of being misused, according to Murray Hunter who is an independent researcher and information rights activist.

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Hunter was speaking with Professor Jane Duncan, the head of the department of journalism at the University of Johannesburg, during an online discussion on Covid-19 digital tracking on Wednesday.

He said there was always a risk when it came to collecting and storing personal and private information.

“Under any circumstances, I think there is always an element of risk and potentially an element of big risk,” Hunter added.

Earlier this month, the government announced it would use cellphone towers to trace people who have been in contact with Covid-19-positive people, News24 reported.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams previously said the department had sought permission from cellphone network providers to access the geo-location of certain people to assist the Department of Health in contact tracing.

But Hunter pointed out once information was stored in a database “it is always hackable”.

“It may actually be hackable by our state, by another state [or] by private actors, and this is a significant threat.”

Regulations also stipulated this database should be anonymised after the lockdown and preserved for research purposes, but this was another concern, Hunter said.

“The big concern there is that anonymised information is never truly anonymised.

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“I think it’s an issue that public health officials, epidemiologists and researchers talk about all the time – that [the government] sit[s] on these vast databases of information that it is not 100% sure that they are anonymised,” he added

These provisions are probably not added for any malicious reasons and might have been added in good faith, but they still carry a risk because of the sensitivity of the information.

Hunter said while he was still grappling with these dynamics, public health voices should add to the debate.

Need for digital data

Human rights activists around the globe discussed both the need for these digital data to be used during the crisis and also protections that should go along with it.

In South Africa, the government has attempted to mitigate these risks by amending the relevant lockdown regulations.

This includes provisions which stipulate that information can also be sought about someone’s location if they are suspected of having been exposed to Covid-19.

There is a timeframe for information collected which can only be preserved if it is necessary for contact tracing and needs to eventually be destroyed. An oversight judge has also been appointed who will direct the dismantling of the system at the end of the operation.

If your data was seized by the department, you would be notified within six weeks, Hunter said.

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