Privacy concerns during a pandemic

  • IASbaba
  • April 29, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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Topic: General Studies 2 & 4:

  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation. 
  • Ethics in Public administration 

Privacy concerns during a pandemic

Context: In the midst of public health crisis, the measures taken by Union & State governments in India – lockdown, physical distancing norms – has been supported by public. 

Nevertheless, there are certain pitfalls which needs to be avoided especially with regard to government’s technology solutions to tackle pandemic

Dangers of government actions during Crises times

  • Prone to overreach: Justice Khanna outlined that “when faced with crises, governments — acting for all the right reasons — are invariably prone to overreach”
  • Threat to Civil Liberties: If the government so chooses, fundamental rights can be suspended at will stating that the need to save lives takes precedence over all other interests.
  • Continuance of restrictive measures even after the crises has passed
  • Invasive use of technology that seeks to utilise people’s personal health data.

How has technology been invoked during this pandemic?

Technology has been invoked at three levels. 

  • First, in creating a list of persons suspected to be infected with COVID-19; 
  • Second, in deploying geo-fencing and drone imagery to monitor compliance by quarantined individuals 
  • Third, through the use of contact-tracing smartphone applications, such as AarogyaSetu

Impact of technologies on privacy

1. The use of geo-fencing and drone technologies is unsanctioned

  • Though cell-phone based surveillance is permissible under the Telegraph Act of 1885, until now the orders authorising surveillance have not been published. 

2. Indiscriminate usage of modified surveillance drones 

  • These are equipped with the ability to conduct thermal imaging, night-time reconnaissance, and integrate facial recognition into existing databases such as Aadhaar. 
  • Some of the drones do not appear to possess any visible registration or licensing.

3. Dangers of contact-tracing applications like ArogyaSetu

  • It promises users a deep insight into the movements of a COVID-19 carrier
  • The aim is to ensure that a person who comes into contact with a carrier can quarantine herself. 
  • The efficacy of such applications have been questioned by some
  • Lack of Transparency: Details of the application’s technical architecture and its source code have not been made public. 
  • Lack of accountability: The programme and its institution is not backed by legislation.
  • Coercive in nature: Like Aadhaar it seems that the application will be used as an object of coercion (through issuance of e-pass) in spite of making its usage voluntary
  • Invades Privacy: AarogyaSetu is framed as a necessary technological invasion into personal privacy, in a bid to achieve a larger social purpose
  • Lack of clarity on how the huge personal data that it will collect will be deployed.

Way Ahead

  • A pandemic cannot be a pretext to renounce the Constitution
  • Any action by government that infringes on privacy must meet the requirements of legality, necessity and the doctrine of proportionality (K.S. Puttaswamy Case)
  • Civil Society should pay close attention to rights, not to impede the government’s efforts, but to ensure that they are not permanently reduced.

Connecting the dots:

  • Justice B.N.Srikrishna Committee report on Data protection 
  • EU Data protection law

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