From contact tracing to creating buffer zones around Covid-19 clusters, India is using mapping and location-tracking technology to fight the pandemic. Maps have been used to assess and tackle diseases since the 1850 cholera outbreak in London.

IndiaSpend looks at how mapping the disease data through geographic information system or GIS can assist policymakers and the authorities during outbreaks, and what privacy concerns can arise.

GIS is a system designed to capture and analyse data using spatial trends. In the context of disease surveillance and monitoring, it integrates data such as the area of outbreak, population health and available infrastructure to identify the population at risk. In recent years, the system has been used to study and tackle several communicable and non-communicable diseases.

As of 3 pm on April 12, India has detected 8,356 cases of Covid-19, according to Coronavirus Monitor, a HealthCheck database. While 712 patients have been discharged, 268 have died. Globally, at least 1.6 million cases have been detected, of which more than 350,000 have recovered and more than 95,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

How India uses the technology

The Centre has tested the Covid-19 Quarantine Alert System, an application that uses telecom data to trigger emails and text-message alerts to the authorities if a person has jumped quarantine, The Hindu reported on April 3.

“The data collected shall be used only for the purpose of Health Management in the context of Covid-19 and is strictly not for any other purposes,” the report said. “Any violation in this regard would attract penal provisions under the relevant laws.”

Earlier, the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority and health department officials had begun collating disease surveillance data separately, with primary and secondary contacts of confirmed patients, traced and identified on a live geo-map, NDTV reported on March 12. This allows officials to identify high-risk zones to activate containment measures.

Further, the state is adding layers such as the availability of laboratory facilities and isolation wards in these areas.

On March 27, the Gujarat government launched a GIS-based mobile application to monitor the movement of those advised to be home-quarantined. Similar to the Centre’s Quarantine Alert System, it alerts authorities if the person being monitored leaves quarantine.

The Srinagar district had also announced plans to undertake GIS mapping of all cases including suspects, those under surveillance, quarantined and isolated, according to a March 17 report.

The Telangana government was also deploying geo-location technology to track over 25,000 people under home-quarantine using a Covid-19 monitoring system, according to an April 1 report. The state was already using “TSCop”, an app developed by the Telangana police, to geotag houses of foreign returnees, the report said.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the government is using two tech tools developed by the State Disaster Management Authority to track each person in home-quarantine and for contact-tracing of positive cases, the report said.

Punjab is also using cellphone data including call records and GPS to enforce lockdown, ensure home delivery of groceries, and for contact-tracing, The Indian Express reported on April 10.

Other countries

Health officials in South Korea retraced patients’ movements using security camera footage, credit card records, and global positioning system data from their cars and cellphones, The New York Times reported on March 23. Citizens are alerted of new cases, with websites and apps detailing hour-by-hour timelines of infected people’s travel. People who believe they may have crossed paths with a patient are urged to report to testing centers. A separate app tracks those under quarantine.

Israel has allowed its intelligence agency to track mobile phones of confirmed or suspected patients. “We’ll deploy measures we’ve only previously deployed against terrorists,” the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Some of these will be invasive and infringe on the privacy of those affected. We must adopt a new routine.”

In China, entering one’s apartment compound or workplace requires scanning a QR code, writing down one’s name and ID number, temperature and recent travel history, The Guardian reported in March. Telecom operators track people’s movements, some cities are offering rewards for informing on sick neighbours, and Chinese companies are rolling out facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures in a crowd or flag citizens not wearing a face mask.

Austria and Belgium are using anonymised data from telecom operators for contact-tracing and monitoring those quarantined.

Healthmap – developed by Boston Children’s Hospital – collates data from validated alerts from official sites for surveillance of emerging disease. Data ranging from air-ticketing and online networks tracking disease outbreaks in animals are used to track any unusual events and possible outbreaks. For Covid-19, Healthmap offers an interactive map, which includes a feature to show “outbreaks near me” – informing users about the disease transmission in their vicinity.

Privacy concerns

“The use of surveillance technologies, although necessary during the ongoing pandemic, has again started the long-standing debates on balancing privacy and security,” said Kazim Rizvi, founding director of The Dialogue, a think-tank working in the intersection of technology and public policy. “It is important that the surveillance technologies should observe the tests laid down by the Apex Court in the Puttaswamy judgment.”

The judgment permits surveillance provided that it is authorised by law, and its use is necessary and proportionate to the harm expected, he said, adding that a comprehensive surveillance law must keep privacy at the heart.

The use of spatial technologies and mapping for surveillance requires data classified as personally identifiable information. Concepts such as consent and personal data, for instance, are not defined in the Information Technology Act, 2000, rules framed under which the Information Technology Rules of 2011 regulate data protection in the country.

To rectify this, the Personal Data Protection Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 11, 2019. It has been referred to a joint parliamentary committee for examination, but falls short in addressing privacy and accountability, Rizvi said. The Bill does not provide for an independent data protection authority that could look into the privacy concerns, he added.

“Authorising unregulated surveillance might lead to data discrimination in which marginalised community could be further excluded due to non-transparent algorithmic processes,” Rizvi said.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.