Big Brother will be watching you, SA, but he can’t hear your ...

News

Big Brother will be watching you, SA, but he can’t hear your chats

Cellphones to be used to track Covid-19 infections, but a judge will make sure the state doesn’t abuse its new powers

Journalist
The information gathered may be retained by the director-general of health for six weeks, Thereafter, it will have to be destroyed.
finger on the pulse The information gathered may be retained by the director-general of health for six weeks, Thereafter, it will have to be destroyed.
Image: 123RF/ANDRIY

Cellphone companies will provide government with the location and movement of anyone known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19. However, they will not disclose the content of conversations.

The use of cellphone location data to track and trace people comes as the department of health ramps up efforts to trace those suspected of having been in contact with people with Covid-19.

In regulations gazetted on Thursday, the department detailed its efforts to develop and maintain a national database in this regard. 

The confidential database will include the name and surname of the person, their ID number, address, cellphone number and the outcome of their Covid-19 test. The location data can be used to support tracing efforts, but interception of communication is not allowed.

In line with the regulations, the director-general of the health department has the power to ask cellphone companies to provide information from March 5 until the state of disaster has been lifted.

Nothing in this regulation entitles the director-general of health or any other person to intercept the contents of any electronic communication.

“The information ... may only be obtained, used or disclosed by authorised persons and may only be obtained, used and disclosed when necessary for the purposes of addressing, preventing or combating the spread of Covid-19 through the contact tracing process,” the regulations read.

Last week, the government indicated its intention to use cellphone data in the fight against Covid-19, but cellphone companies were unsure of  the legalities.

The regulations state that the information gathered through cellphone data may be retained by the DG of health for six weeks. Thereafter, it will have to be destroyed. 

Assuring citizens that voice conversations and messages will not be listened to, the regulations state: “Nothing in this regulation entitles the director-general: health or any other person to intercept the contents of any electronic communication.”

Justice minister Ronald Lamola must now appoint a “Covid-19 judge” to oversee tracing and tracking, and will receive weekly reports.