IPC Explainer: Tech Vs. Privacy During COVID-19

What are the key contours of the tech vs privacy debate when it comes to fighting the coronavirus? What have other countries around the world done? Kanksshi Aggarwal breaks it down for us. 

The world has been fighting the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease for months now. Some countries acted before others. Some have managed to flatten the curve; others are still planning an exit strategy out of stringent lockdowns. But most importantly, almost all the countries have resorted to technology, data and innovation at some stage in order to deal with the pandemic.

The responses adopted by different governments around the world can be divided into two main categories:

- Those countries which were able to leverage new and emerging technologies to fight the virus have done better in limiting the number of positive cases and fatalities while managing to keep most of their economies and societies operational.

- Others, unable to use cutting edge technology, had to rely on lockdowns, quarantine, universal bans, closures and other physical restrictions.

Countries in the first category include South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. They have used state of the art surveillance-technology - architecture that has been built over years after the failure of these countries to prevent the outbreak of SARS 17 years ago. That said, China, India, Vietnam, Italy, Poland and others have boarded the tech-surveillance wagon too.

Such widespread and universal adoption of emerging technologies has raised concerns regarding data-privacy and the civil rights of citizens and begs a debate on the dangers of tools of mass-surveillance which might just be here to stay. Expectedly, the disease challenges existing privacy norms and is driving conversations about the ethical use of data.

Cases from the World: There are three main phases in which technology can be effective.  - first, in the detection of COVID-19 positive individuals and contact-tracing;  - second, in enforcing quarantine  - and finally, with helping non-infected people staying at home.  In South Korea, the infected person’s movements over the preceding two weeks are determined through credit-card use, security-camera footage, and mobile-phone tracking. Data from surveillance camera footage and credit card transactions are corroborated to recreate the route taken by the COVID-19 patient. Those who have downloaded the mobile-app on their phones (non-mandatory), their location is continuously tracked to ensure quarantine is not being violated. People get text-message alerts when a new infection emerges in the areas where they live or work. The technology is based on location tracing (upto 100 meters within the area of infection, users get notified).  In the context of this it is important to take note of a similar website in India- https://www.coronatracker.in/. The call-to-action button on this site enables the GPS/Location tracker in the device of an individual and informs how far are they from the nearest positive case of COVID-19.

In Singapore, the details of the patient’s residence, work and hangout spots are released online, allowing others to protect themselves - an outright breach of privacy which can lead to social discrimination has been given the sanction of law.

The Chinese response is expectedly Orwellian with the usage of facial recognition being mandated on over-the-counter purchases, using public transport, movement in crowded places and continuous scanning for checking mask-wears.  Ant Financial’s Alipay app (a project by local government, first introduced in the city of Hangzhou) assigns codes to people - red, yellow, green, which determines their freedom to move, although there is no clarity about the accuracy and transparency around these allocations. The system has been rolled out for nationwide implementation (it’s not voluntary). 

Measures such as this, going forward, can lead to discrimination based on personal data being collected today. The Hangzhou’s communist party secretary called the health code system, “an important practice in digitally empowered city management”, which suggests the intention of expanding the scope of the app from tackling a pandemic to governance.

Media sources report an experimental system dubbed the Alipay Health Code which tracks individuals’ compliance with quarantine rules.  Part of the software allegedly has the potential to report the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to the police. India launched Aarogya Setu app, which works on Bluetooth and location services, being utilised for evaluating risk based on location, travel and medical history. A digital rights organisation in India - Internet Freedom Foundation - pointed out that the app does not adhere to the principles of “minimisation, strict purpose limitation, accountability and transparency”. The privacy policy of the app does not specify which departments, ministries and officials will be accessing the data. There is a long list of demands that the government needs to address before the app can be seen as addressing urgent privacy-related concerns. 

Emerging Concerns:

As discussed above, a wide range of technologically advanced tools and methods are being utilised in order to manage the pandemic across the globe. From CCTV footage, credit-card purchase information, big-data and travel history information available on social media apps, drones and blue-tooth signal exchanges to predictive algorithms and AI-enabled-infra-red-temperature-sensors - numerous options of surveillance are being explored and implemented. According to the WHO, data protection regulations had delayed the delivery of crucial information about the spread of the outbreak outside mainland China. This statement, whether true or not, led to a debate about whether stringent data protection laws in (mostly) western countries inhibited swift action towards tracking, monitoring and containing the spread of the virus. Were the countries with no or flexible data protection laws at an advantage as they utilised the weakness in regulation to deal with the virus without resorting to economy-halting-lockdowns?

- In Singapore and South Korea, individuals are digitally monitored, but life is almost normal. In Spain, they are not monitored - but they cannot leave home. The European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is stringent and renders extensive surveillance unworkable. On the other hand, Singapore's Personal Data Protection Commission has relaxed its terms to allow the collection, use and disclosure of personal data without the person's consent to carry out contact tracing and other coronavirus response measures. - Vietnam is tracking locals and foreigners through mobile apps, while Thai immigration authorities are using location data of those arriving in the country, which amounts to "mass surveillance” and a serious risk to privacy.  “Many data protection laws around the world have provisions to allow governments to bypass getting consent in certain circumstances, for say national security or public health emergencies'', says Carolyn Bigg, a partner at law firm DLA Piper in Hong Kong. In the Indian context, this is an important point with respect to Sec 35 of the new Data Protection Bill. Introduced in the Indian Parliament (2019) and currently pending review under the Joint Select Committee, it gives overarching powers to the government to access the personal data of citizens. - The two tech-giants, Apple and Google, announced their partnership in April to launch a technology for augmenting and facilitating contact tracing. The software, now launched, can be used to develop apps that detect when a user has spent time near another user who later tests positive for the virus. The software relies on bluetooth to protect against privacy concerns.  Unlike the GPS-based apps launched by many countries, the short-range bluetooth technology won’t track physical locations, or collect data that could reveal any person’s identity including the person who tests positive, and notify users through anonymous ID keys which will change often. However, even bluetooth-technology is plagued with possibilities of  false positives.  Also, the success rates of these apps depend on the number of downloads and below a certain threshold the contribution of apps to contact tracing may remain negligible. Already 22 countries are set to start using the technology to build their apps. - Other private firms in the United States are catching up too. Palantir Inc., a data-mining company, is helping governments determine where to send medical equipment.

Advantages of using emerging technologies to deal with the crisis:

- Economy: Timely use of surveillance measures helped countries like Taiwan, South Korea to control the virus without lockdowns which prevented them from compromising the economy. - Efficiency: Drone (also AI-robots in other countries) being used in India across cities - Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Maharashtra for various objectives - enforcing lockdown, monitoring lockdown, managing crowds, sanitisation of colonies and hospital compounds, food and medicine delivery is a step forward in innovation and increases efficiency. Localised geo-mapping for tracing and tracking of “hot-spots” or locations with higher susceptibility is another application in place which can prove beneficial. It will build a data-base for GIS-mapping tools which can assist in evidence-based spatial health planning in the future. - Evidence-based decision-making: With purpose and storage limitations, anonymisation of data and other privacy-instilling measures, the data being collected will be immensely helpful for future research. Through a data-led policy-making approach, the world can prepare for future pandemics. - Information Symmetry and Transparency: With quality data the dashboards for information, health workers might be able to pick trends in real-time and resources can be prioritised immediately. The tracking of the health-care staff within hospitals can also be facilitated through these dashboards which may address their concerns and improve coordination.


- A Growing Threat to Privacy: Mass tracking of people's movements and contacts using smartphone location data violates the principle of taking consent before processing data. - Uncertainty over Future of Data-Regulation: The pandemic is a probable U-turn from the advancements of the last decade towards data-sharing, storage, filtering and processing. - Lack of Purpose Limitation: In countries with no data laws, there is no obligation of purpose-limitation which gives limitless authority to the state to use this data for other than purposes of handling the pandemic.  - Creation of a Permanent Structure for Surveillance: The data which is being mined today using systemic but multiple tools can lead to the creation of an architecture of surveillance that countries could not have built under any other circumstances. - Lack of Accuracy: An Al Jazeera article reports that 600 scientists from across the world released a statement- GPS-based contact tracing apps “lacked sufficient accuracy” In this case, what are citizens compromising their privacy for?  Additionally, GPS based methods should not be preferred over bluetooth technology which does not reveal the exact location of the user.


- The overlap between the rise of populism and data and surveillance as tools in the hands of populist leaders is a lethal threat to democracy. - In the absence of an independent data regulation law in several countries, the fear persists regarding the continuation of measures that violate privacy. Will mass surveillance become the new norm? - The use of technology to track individuals on a large scale, even for important public health reasons, may open the door to intrusive monitoring in the long term. With the EU already making veiled suggestions in the direction of revision of its existing privacy and surveillance regulations, will we see a rethinking of data privacy rules and principles around the world including the GDPR? - The ever-increasing focus on data is now at an unprecedented peak. In November 2019, India refused to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) citing that the deal in its current form did not meet India’s “core interests”. RCEP is a proposed Free Trade Agreement that was being negotiated between ASEAN countries along with India, China, Australia, Korea, Japan and New Zealand (16 countries). One of the reasons for the fall-out was India’s insistence on data-localisation while other participating countries disagreed. Data localisation prevents cross-border-free-flow of data (permissions to be taken from government for exception). Localisation is a conservative approach to secure data within national borders to prevent its access by other countries. The importance of data is ever-increasing and will continue to escalate as we move into a tech-dominated world. - In the new Data Protection Bill tabled by the government (PDP 2019), the data localisation requirements have been partially relaxed. But as the bill is still pending the concerns surrounding a more stringent stance on localisation is a possibility in the post-Covid world as nations would prefer autonomy over data more than before.


A fundamental tension exists between the capacity of digital technologies to harvest data for specific purposes and the risks the use or misuse of that data can pose to individual liberty, security, and democracy on the whole. Privacy, dignity and the right to self-determination are foundational to being a free human in a liberal and democratic society.

While, temporary liberties allowing data use to deal with the pandemic could be permitted but any such framework should have in-built safeguards, a transparent architecture, and should come with a time limit so that it does not have the potential to jeopardise an individual's privacy and liberty in the long run. 

Kanksshi Agarwal is Senior Researcher (Tech-Society Initiative) at the Centre for Policy Research, and works at the intersection of technology, gender, society and politics. A former LAMP Fellow, she has worked with multiple Members of Parliament as a political strategist and researcher. She graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, with a specialisation in Urban Policy and Governance and Energy studies.

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