Centre tells states to use mobile tracking method for quarantine enforcement - india news
The Union government’s telecommunications department is offering states the ability to mass track people using mobile network tower data, offering a platform that can let ground-level authorities create virtual geo-fences for those meant to be in quarantine, as well as a second service that can let officials send out SMS messages to people in a specific area for Covid-19 containment efforts.
Officials in several states have acknowledged previously that they use mobile network information to monitor those meant to be under quarantine, but the Centre’s pitch to other states that are not using such services at present details how these tools work and the sort of legal authorization behind it.
The first service, a mobile device surveillance system called Covid Quarantine Alert System, uses cellphone tower – also called a base transceiver station (BTS) – data to determine the approximate location of a person. If this person has been put on a watch-list, the system throws up an alert if their phone goes out of that geographic area and connects to a different BTS, according to an official who asked not to be named.
To put someone on a watch-list, state authorities will need to send the person’s phone number to the department of telecom (DoT). An alert will also be sent if a mobile number if switched off for too long, the official quoted above said, adding that the tracking will not work if people leave their phones behind.
“As on April 16, we tracked the movement of 70,422 persons in states including Bihar, Telangana, West Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. The service is authorised by the home secretary of the respective states and is allowed under the provision of section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph’s act for public emergency,” the person quoted above said.
The law invoked, telegraph act’s section 5(2), is used for legal interception of telecommunications that is allowed in the Indian constitution under specific conditions, such as for national security and to prevent a crime. Breaking quarantine is a criminal offence under Section 188 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, which has been invoked since India declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) a health emergency.
The second service, called Covid-19 Savdhan, too has been deployed by some states. “Covid-19 Savdhan allows messaging in a targeted geographic area, we can send message to targeted groups, narrowing it down to one mobile tower. It is of great use in the hotspots and containment zones. This is again being done in Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Sikkim, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” the functionary quoted above said.
To get more states to start using these utilities, the Union government first reached out through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The DoT will now write to the chief secretaries of those that have not adopted it, the person quoted above said, adding that both services are free of charge.
The official also said that states will not be passed on the names of the mobile phone users. “It is a non-intrusive way of checking if a person is within the tower area; we don’t monitor the phone usage,” this person added.
A second official who occupies a senior post in the telecom department, said the tools have been developed by C-DOT to help health and disaster management authorities. “Covid Savdhan application, in particular, enables authorities to reach out to all mobile subscribers in any particular containment zone up to the level of individual mobile tower and convey targeted messages about health, well-being, water supply etc by means of SMS in local language,” this person added.
The messaging service is available in all regional languages, and so far 26 million messages have been sent out through the platform for Covid-19 related communication till now.
C-Dot is a government agency that develops computer applications for use in telecommunications.
Experts said for the government legally use such surveillance mechanisms,there needs to be an order issued by the Union as well as the state governments. “The systems of mass surveillance which are being deployed are being done without any clear legal authority or limits. While the Telegraph Act does permit the government to place people under surveillance, it also contains safeguards which must be followed. It also remains an open question how the Central government’s cellphone tracking data will integrate with the data gathered by the Aarogya Setu app,” said Apar Gupta from the Internet Freedom Foundation, who was one of the lawyers in a PIL filed by the PUCL that led to the codification of the guidelines under section 5(2).
“While there is a concept in health about disaster and epidemic tracking, those are applied only to people who fall sick. These steps are larger in ambit and the fundamental right to privacy is breached. The government should be transparent and issue orders, while letting people know that this is a temporary measure, that a complaint officer will be instated, and talk about how the data will be dealt with once the pandemic is over,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima of the digital rights group Access Now.
April 18, 2020