Covid-19 in Africa: When is Surveillance Necessary and Proportionate?

As the world grapples to contain the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19), the role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to enhance disease surveillance, coordinate response mechanisms, and promote public awareness has become more significant. This role of digital technologies is particularly crucial in sub-Saharan Africa where systemic vulnerabilities such as weak health systems and high levels of illiteracy could slow the response to the pandemic.
As of March 25, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 2,245 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in 44 countries and 58 deaths in 12 countries in Africa. For a continent of 1.2 billion people across 54 countries, these numbers are still relatively  low, but could potentially escalate. The head of the WHO has advised African governments “to prepare for the worst and prepare today.”

In order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, several countries across the world have deployed the use of big data, mobile apps and other digital technologies. Austria, Iran, Israel, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the USA, are among the countries using geo-location technology reliant on data from tech platforms and telecom companies in order to contain the spread of the Covid-19.
In Austria, A1 Telekom has provided the government with real-time data on its subscribers to enable disease surveillance, while Deutsche Telekom is providing anonymised subscriber data to the Robert Koch Institute which is coordinating the German national response to Covid-19. Singapore’s contact tracing app is purportedly privacy conserving and data protection sensitive. Given the urgency of the pandemic and the dire social and economic costs, countries such as the USA and Israel are triggering emergency powers to institute state-level surveillance previously reserved for counter-terrorism operations.
China’s approach has seen the country leverage its pervasive and sophisticated digital surveillance infrastructure for disease control. Citizens in provinces such as Hubei – the worst hit by the virus – are required to install mobile apps that track travel and medical history and effect ‘digital quarantines’ to control access to subways, malls, and other public spaces. Drones and robots have also been deployed in the affected areas. In Italy, the second hardest-hit country after China, Vodafone has indicated in a statement that it is “providing Italian officials with anonymised customer data to track and analyse population movements in the hard-hit Lombardy region, where people are in lockdown.”

According to Bloomberg, about a dozen countries are testing a disease surveillance tool developed by Israeli spyware firm NSO Group. The software purportedly collects up to two-weeks of mobile tracking data from an infected person and matches it with geo-location data from mobile operators, which identifies individuals who were in close proximity with the infected person. The NSO Group has over the years been at the centre of spyware schemes in authoritarian and repressive governments in Africa and elsewhere.
The extent to which African countries are conducting technology-based disease surveillance is not fully known. However, according to an unconfirmed report, Kenya is monitoring the mobile phones of individuals who are under self-isolation, to arrest those who violate the restrictions imposed on their movements. Further, the Kenyan government has announced it will launch a contact tracing app for public transport to provide critical contact data that will help trace back the movements of confirmed or suspected cases. In South Africa, telecom companies have agreed to give the government location data to combat Covid-19.
In Uganda, where health authorities struggled to locate several individuals who travelled on the same flights as persons who tested positive for the coronavirus, there has been a suggestion to use information from the immigration department and telecom companies to locate those individuals.

While well intentioned, Covid-19 surveillance and data-based tracking interventions have been effected in haste, and with limited precedent and oversight mechanisms.

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