Tackling corona vital, must deal with privacy issues too

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Published: April 6, 2020 2:20:03 AM

Tracking corona-afflicted or those quarantined is critical, but need rules to ensure this is a one-time thing.

It was comforting to know India’s intelligence agencies were savvy enough to scan the crowd at the prime minister’s Independence Day speech.

At a time when so many people are breaking their quarantine, and when the spread of the corona virus is suddenly picking up very fast—it took 31 days for the number of infected to rise to 1,397 and then just four days for this to almost double to 2,611—the government has done well to emulate what some other countries are doing in terms of corona-tracking. Aarogya Setu, the app released by the government on Thursday, uses bluetooth information and GPS data to let users know whether they have encountered an infected person. Indian state governments, too, have come up with some pretty neat solutions. Karnataka has launched an app for those isolated at home to update their location; the state, on Monday, made it mandatory for all those isolated at homes to download an app called Quarantine Watch and upload selfies each hour with a GPS location.

Such technology, needless to say, will play a big role in bolstering confidence as India moves towards unwinding the current lockdown situation. So, as more people start leaving their homes to go to work or school or shopping, or whatever, Aarogya Setu will help them know if the area they are in—or the person whose vicinity they are in—is Covid-positive. Indeed, an app like this and a dramatic increase in testing, will be critical in a post-lockdown India; even the staggering of the reopening—the PM discussed this with state CMs on Thursday—can use information of this sort for decision-making. Interestingly, Google has just published a report on what people did in the last few weeks in various countries—it shows a 35% reduction in grocery shopping and a 53% fall in the numbers going to the office in India—which is also helpful in knowing whether the lockdown is working.

There is, however, a downside of such data in that it can lead to an all-seeing, all-knowing state. Once there is proof the technology works, and it clearly does, it can be used for anything; to keep a track of where dissidents are, for instance. Indeed, while it was comforting to know India’s intelligence agencies were savvy enough to scan the crowd at the prime minister’s Independence Day speech using facial recognition software—and also during the Delhi riots—this raises fears of China-style tabs on the daily life of citizens.

While there are times when the state needs such data—to help it figure out where to concentrate its relief efforts, for instance—there have to be enough checks to ensure this is not abused. Ideally, a data privacy law should take care of something like this, but that law gives a blanket exemption to all government agencies. And, while it is tempting to believe the government will put a mechanism in place to ensure there is no abuse, as the Justice Srikrishna panel pointed out, the checks are really not working in the manner they were expected to. While phone taps were expected to be authorised after great care—and even more care be taken to ensure the power to tap is not abused—and an elaborate procedure has been set in place, Srikrishna found the committee charged with executing the tapping often cleared 15,000 phone tap requests in one meeting. One obvious safeguard is to ensure data is only processed with anonymised results. But, where individual data is being used, in any form, a full-time panel lead by a retired SC judge, should be examining requests for surveillance, how they were used, were they even needed etc.

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