In case of the coronavirus pandemic, finding those who carry the virus and preventing others from coming into contact with them is so far the only effective means of preventing the spread. But here, it is the process of finding that has set off surveillance and privacy alarm bells(REUTERS)
In case of the coronavirus pandemic, finding those who carry the virus and preventing others from coming into contact with them is so far the only effective means of preventing the spread. But here, it is the process of finding that has set off surveillance and privacy alarm bells(REUTERS)

Reflections on surveillance in the middle of a pandemic | Opinion

While it may seem like it’s a worthy trade to sacrifice individual privacy to contain the pandemic, it is decisions taken in the eye of the storm that will ripple outwards, creating situations and precedents for future emergencies
UPDATED ON APR 04, 2020 04:49 PM IST

We live in an age marked by one overarching phenomenon — surveillance. Operationalised through electronics and analysed through algorithms, everyday surveillance of the minutiae of our lives has become the defining feature of our times. The data exhaust from our mundane, everyday lives is collected, collated and analysed; and returned to us in many forms such as recommendations on what else we’d like to buy on shopping apps, the manner in which our social media feeds are ordered, and as activists have found out, even government officials showing up at their doorsteps. Much ink has been spilled in describing the many ways in which such surveillance can be harmful, especially in the hands of private corporations and authoritarian regimes.

But, as with everything, the phenomenon of surveillance itself is value neutral. It is neither inherently good or inherently bad. Its harm and benefits are made operational by the manner in which it is deployed. While there are excellent reasons to stop collecting and collating so much data about users; there are some spaces in which surveillance is a vital tool. One of those areas is public health. Surveillance as a tool to study and safeguard from epidemics is a method as old as modern medicine itself. Since the time of Hippocrates, observation and analysis of data has been the cornerstone of modern medicine. Throughout history, attempts at early detection and effective surveillance of diseases have helped not just curb the spread of communicable diseases, but also understand diseases themselves and develop treatment paradigms. Polio is a case in point. The complete eradication of polio in India was a resounding victory for effective surveillance and reporting.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the public health arm of the United Nations (UN) lists integrated disease surveillance as part of its important functions. In such surveillance, countries are required to report any cases of notifiable infectious diseases to WHO. The data thus collected helps analyse the spread and severity of the disease, and to quickly and efficiently put in place protocols to handle the crisis and contain the spread in the case of an epidemic. Disease surveillance, in order to be effective, must be continuous and systematic. This automatically means the continuous collection of data from everywhere.

In comparison to the kind and amount of data that data brokers have about our everyday habits, the amount of viable health data that is available for analysis even in countries such as the United States and Britain is abysmal. Even within the much-vaunted National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, datasets are sparse and often disconnected. This makes it harder for doctors to trace patients’ histories across regions or find common threads among diseases and treatment protocols within the system.

In case of the coronavirus pandemic, finding those who carry the virus and preventing others from coming into contact with them is so far the only effective means of preventing the spread. But here, it is the process of finding that has set off surveillance and privacy alarm bells. Whether it’s European, Israeli and Chinese governments accessing mobile phone location data to ensure that people are obeying lockdown orders or the Karnataka government publishing online the names and contact details of people who have returned from abroad, breaches of individual privacy in these pandemic times are becoming commonplace.

In cases where diseases carry stigma — such as HIV — knowledge of disease history and a breach in anonymity of cases can be particularly harmful. We have already seen this in India with coronavirus cases, where individuals and families face social ostracisation. Several Indians have even taken to ostracising doctors who are working at the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus.

It is in this context that privacy must be taken into consideration by government agencies while continuing to battle the pandemic. As several commentators have pointed out, measures taken during extreme situations have a sneaky way of becoming business-as-usual, even after the emergency is over. And as we know from several generations of caste discrimination, social ostracisation sticks very easily. One other clear upshot of privacy violations is that a fear of ostracism and mistrust of authorities could prevent people from coming forward to report their symptoms and travel history. With no protocols for data security and preventing personal details of individuals from becoming public; case surveillance in the Internet age can lead to dangerous consequences. The phone numbers and addresses of specific people, for instance, can easily be culled from a public database of people returning home from abroad. Linking this one database to many others can also reveal many other details of individuals, to anyone who comes looking.

In such a situation, while it may seem like it’s a worthy trade to sacrifice individual privacy to contain the pandemic, it is decisions taken in the eye of the storm that will ripple outwards, creating situations and precedents for future emergencies. A pandemic in the age of digital surveillance and big data compounds public vulnerabilities; adding to the looming health and economic crises. This is, therefore, the best time to ask questions about the efficacy of the surveillance in each administrative block — from individual villages and residential complexes to nation-states and WHO itself. What is the information that it is important to know, who absolutely requires to know, how much of it requires dissemination, how can it be effectively collated and reported, and how may we protect the individuals who are already dealing with fear and uncertainty are the important questions to ask.

Vidya Subramanian is a post-doctoral fellow, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay

The views expressed are personal

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
Their success highlights the depth and strength of talent in the country (PTI)
Their success highlights the depth and strength of talent in the country (PTI)

Courage, calibre, character: India’s greatest series win

By Ayaz Memon
PUBLISHED ON JAN 20, 2021 08:07 PM IST
The experienced pros and newcomers combined to prove a point to themselves, the opponents and the world. And created history
Close
The Centre ensured the supply of drugs with equitable and integrated access (REUTERS)
The Centre ensured the supply of drugs with equitable and integrated access (REUTERS)

Managing drug security effectively in times of a pandemic

By Sudhansh Pant
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 09:19 PM IST
The Centre’s strategy to ensure sufficient access, monitor stocks and distribution, issue approvals, maintain seamless supply chain of drugs, effectively communicate with stakeholders, and evolve a dynamic Clinical Management Protocol (CMP) has contributed significantly to India’s Covid-19 management success
Close
A new report by Chatham House describes India as UK’s ‘rival’ or ‘at best, an awkward counterpart’ on par with Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It also weighs in against the idea of expanding G7 to include India (Getty Images)
A new report by Chatham House describes India as UK’s ‘rival’ or ‘at best, an awkward counterpart’ on par with Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It also weighs in against the idea of expanding G7 to include India (Getty Images)

Is ‘Global Britain’ inimical to India?

By Syed Akbaruddin
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 09:10 PM IST
There are disturbing signals from both segments of British polity and civil society. India will need to assess the UK’s position carefully
Close
Pakistan's opposition parties had united last year under the aegis of Pakistan Democratic Movement to launch coordinated attacks on Prime Minister Imran Khan(AFP)
Pakistan's opposition parties had united last year under the aegis of Pakistan Democratic Movement to launch coordinated attacks on Prime Minister Imran Khan(AFP)

Imran Khan gets squeezed between shrinking economy and proactive opposition

UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 05:48 PM IST
  • Differences between China and Pakistan over funding of CPEC's biggest railway project spotlights the growing pressures on PM Imran Khan on the economy front
Close
There is evidence to indicate that the PLA's work and engineering force deployed to upgrade infrastructure in occupied Aksai Chin moved back after completion of work last month
There is evidence to indicate that the PLA's work and engineering force deployed to upgrade infrastructure in occupied Aksai Chin moved back after completion of work last month

India should be wary of Chinese mind games

UPDATED ON JAN 13, 2021 12:31 PM IST
  • Withdrawal from the vast Tibetan and Xinjiang military region means little in an era of stand-off weapons and long-range missiles. The Chinese PLA has capacity to deploy troop divisions within a week with metalled roads and optical fibre cables up to the last military post and advanced landing grounds (ALGs) all along the LAC.
Close
President Xi Jinping, unconcerned about China's isolation, is expected to take steps that raise tensions ahead of the 100th anniversary of the communist party
President Xi Jinping, unconcerned about China's isolation, is expected to take steps that raise tensions ahead of the 100th anniversary of the communist party

Xi Jinping is preparing for a special birthday party. It has repercussions

UPDATED ON JAN 10, 2021 02:26 PM IST
  • The 100th-anniversary celebrations of the Chinese communist party would be projected as a strong counter to the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ that the Chinese empire and the Republic of China faced between 1839 and 1949 at the hands of western powers, Russia and Japan.
Close
Oli has been emboldened to stick to power even by breaking the party. In the process, the shallowness of Oli’s opportunistic and politically driven anti-Indian nationalism has been exposed(AFP)
Oli has been emboldened to stick to power even by breaking the party. In the process, the shallowness of Oli’s opportunistic and politically driven anti-Indian nationalism has been exposed(AFP)

What India should, and shouldn’t, do in Nepal

By SD Muni
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 07:59 PM IST
Irrespective of whether Nepal has elections or witnesses the restoration of Parliament, a prudent course for India would be to let Nepal cope with its internal political mess
Close
India is currently the world’s third largest consumer of oil with growing demand and limited domestic supplies. Import in 2019-20 was 1.6 billion barrels and will increase as its economy expands.(REUTERS)
India is currently the world’s third largest consumer of oil with growing demand and limited domestic supplies. Import in 2019-20 was 1.6 billion barrels and will increase as its economy expands.(REUTERS)

To secure India’s energy future, create a sovereign wealth fund and invest

By Amit Bhandari
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:43 PM IST
Norway is an example of prudent management of the windfall from high oil prices of the past, with which it set up a rainy day fund — now one of the most powerful and successful in the world. India is witnessing a similar windfall, in reverse, due to low oil prices — and needs to plan for the time when prices will be higher. That time is now.
Close
Health workers conduct a dry run of Covid-19 vaccination programme, New Delhi, January 6, 2021(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Health workers conduct a dry run of Covid-19 vaccination programme, New Delhi, January 6, 2021(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Devising a vaccine strategy for India

By Reuben Abraham and Anup Malani
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:43 PM IST
Focus on allocation, distribution, financing, communication and certification
Close
The white supremacist disregard for the sanctity of law has been on the increase during the Trump presidency and the contrast with how Washington dealt with peaceful protests by African-Americans in recent months is illustrative of the deep racial fissures that still fester in US society.(AP)
The white supremacist disregard for the sanctity of law has been on the increase during the Trump presidency and the contrast with how Washington dealt with peaceful protests by African-Americans in recent months is illustrative of the deep racial fissures that still fester in US society.(AP)

January 6: A black day for US democracy

By C Uday Bhaskar
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:41 PM IST
The erosion of democracy in the US, led by a defeated president, emboldened by his white supremacist base, will have both domestic and geopolitical consequences
Close
The shutdown of courts across India provided an opportunity to adapt to digital modes of working(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
The shutdown of courts across India provided an opportunity to adapt to digital modes of working(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Ensure access to justice in a post-Covid world

By Leah Verghese
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:20 AM IST
Any move towards the online functioning of courts must account for the digital divide in India
Close
Great cities and societies are not those that unquestioningly preserve everything from the past. They evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past
Great cities and societies are not those that unquestioningly preserve everything from the past. They evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past

The new architecture of a new India

PUBLISHED ON JAN 06, 2021 08:23 PM IST
India needs iconic buildings for functional reasons, to reflect new aspirations, and move past the colonial legacy
Close
The tribunal reasoned that India’s decision to retroactively apply the law, without a specific justification, created a new tax burden on a transaction that was not taxable at the time it was carried out, ie. in 2006(Shutterstock)
The tribunal reasoned that India’s decision to retroactively apply the law, without a specific justification, created a new tax burden on a transaction that was not taxable at the time it was carried out, ie. in 2006(Shutterstock)

India’s retrospective taxation blunder is still extracting heavy costs

By Prabhash Ranjan
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:20 AM IST
In endeavouring to extract revenue through retroactive taxation that damages investor sentiment in the long run, India is being penny-wise and pound-foolish
Close
It should be clear that the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion law infantilises Indian citizens, reduces them to the level of subjects, and authorises State intrusion into the most personal of domains, that of individual conscience.(AFP)
It should be clear that the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion law infantilises Indian citizens, reduces them to the level of subjects, and authorises State intrusion into the most personal of domains, that of individual conscience.(AFP)

Eliminate State and social interference in matters of conscience

By Gautam Bhatia
PUBLISHED ON JAN 05, 2021 06:52 PM IST
The UP conversion law is unconstitutional. But the debate does not end with this one law, as it also replicates many existing provisions from other laws, which have been left standing for too long. India cannot call itself a constitutional democracy until social interference in matters of conscience is eliminated from its laws, once and for all.
Close
Farmers during their protest against the new farm laws, New Delhi, January 3, 2021(PTI)
Farmers during their protest against the new farm laws, New Delhi, January 3, 2021(PTI)

Understanding the rationale of farm protests

By Vijay Inder Singla and Aadil Singh Boparai
UPDATED ON JAN 06, 2021 06:13 AM IST
We need an empathetic government with a moral compass to urgently find a solution to the satisfaction of the farmers. Engaging in dilatory tactics and subterfuge will further exacerbate the growing trust deficit between the farming community and the Centre.
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP