August 5, 2020

The Government of Pakistan Should Avoid Reliance on Digital Surveillance Technologies to Combat the Coronavirus Pandemic

Written by Hija Kamran and Zoya Rehman

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Governments across the world have started relying on a mass surveillance regime to combat COVID-19. Pakistan is no different in that regard. While technology undoubtedly offers immense potential to contain the spread of the virus that is currently engulfing the entire world, Pakistani government authorities should clearly define the scope of the usage of tech-based solutions that they are in the process of adopting. This is a national digital governance emergency that warrants people’s attention, as it could have a lasting impact on the country’s future. The spread of this virus is leading to not only the strengthening of authoritarian measures, but also a blatant disregard of people’s right to privacy. 

This crisis has also put some key human rights commitments that the Pakistani government has previously made on the back burner, one important commitment being that of enacting robust data protection legislation. Pakistan continues to lack data protection legislation that would ensure the protection of the digital data of its citizens, despite repeated calls for urgency in this regard. This renders the data of over 210 million Pakistanis susceptible to being breached and abused. While dealing with the spread of COVID-19, Pakistani government authorities have employed various measures that are either purely based on technology, or heavily dependent on technological support and the data that is already available on public and private servers of the National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA), telecom providers, the recently launched Ehsaas Program, etc. 

NADRA’s database has been hacked multiple times in the past. Telecom data continues to be easily available for anyone who wants to gain access to it. Moreover, there is no accountability in relation to data breaches involving citizens’ personal information being stored on private servers, that makes people living in Pakistan, particularly those from marginalised communities, exceptionally vulnerable. In addition to this, while ensuring the availability of healthcare facilities is a top priority for Pakistani government authorities at this time, concerns regarding the privacy, confidentiality and safety of people are also of paramount importance. 

Moreover, militarising this emergency by instituting an excessive Corona Relief Tiger Force shows that the government of Pakistan is not only drawing a disproportionate parallel between a health emergency and carcerality, but also using ordinary Pakistani citizens to volunteer for a program that encourages mass surveillance. By encouraging measures such as the “surveillance of home quarantine” and the unregulated “tracking and reporting” of other people, the government of Pakistan is infringing on people’s right to privacy. Furthermore, the government has gathered the data of over 300,000 people through this initiative. While people are selflessly offering to help the government in fighting coronavirus within Pakistan, the government is collecting their data without the assurance of any data protection mechanisms in place. 

Governments across the world are readily employing surveillance tools by closely tracking people’s movements and smartphones, and the government of Pakistan is no different in this regard. The concern for people’s health across Pakistan is translating into a broad ‘national security’ concern, which has problematic connotations. Increased collection, aggregation and retention of people’s personal data, including health-related data, should not be used for any public or commercial purposes. However, the government of Pakistan is not making a concerted effort to protect people’s personal data, and is instead entering into data sharing agreements that should be a major cause for concern for everyone in Pakistan. For instance, some people have received text messages by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority as a warning that they may have come into contact with someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19, which goes to show that the government is relying on a smartphone tracking system to alert people who are at risk for contracting the virus

Led by the government’s Digital Pakistan programme, this process involves identifying locations visited by a known COVID-19 patient over the past 14 days. When the owner of a phone tests positive for COVID-19, authorities use a maintained record of their recent movement, through data sources given by telecom providers and the PTA, to notify owners of phones that recently came close to the phone of the person with COVID-19 of their possibility of having contracted the virus, and then to advise them to self-isolate. This suggests that the authorities are not just tracking confirmed patients; they have also tapped into a trove of smartphone location data to identify people who came into contact with known virus carriers, without offering any sort of transparency or limitation period in the process. Hence, it is possible that invasive measures that the government is resorting to now will set the tone and standard for other draconian practices that will be normalised in the future, even after the health emergency is over.

People in Pakistan should not be put on the spot by having to choose between privacy and healthcare; they should be given the agency and autonomy to be able to enjoy both. If this continues, mass biometric surveillance could potentially outlast this public health emergency.

Therefore, the government of Pakistan should tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that does not involve the usage of invasive digital technologies to track and monitor individuals, and instead use technologies strictly in line with human rights principles. While technology should indeed be used to play a critical role in saving people’s lives, by increasing access to healthcare as well as spreading public health awareness generally, this crisis should not encourage an increase in the digital surveillance powers of the state, as an encouragement of mass surveillance will also negatively affect already marginalised communities in Pakistan. Disregarding people’s right to privacy in the name of tackling a public health crisis will further decrease people’s trust in state authorities. Thus, the Pakistani government’s bid to protect its citizens cannot come at the cost of a blatant disregard for human rights law, even if it is said to be for ‘the greater good’.

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