Thursday, July 9, 2020

Inside how COVID-19 may speed up Botswana’s move to a Big Brother state

When Batswana emerge on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would have willingly traded their privacy and civil liberties in exchange for safety in the fight the pandemic and the country would most likely be a big brother state with widespread digital surveillance.

COVID-19 Task Team Coordinator Dr Kereng Masupu announced this week that they would be launching a digital registration platform (App) at public places. “QR Codes will be placed at public entrances across the country for visitors to scan with their phones,” Masupu said. He said the public would be expected to download the app on their smart phones and register their personal details.

“When you scan the code with your device information will be sent directly to the government server.” This, Masupu assured the nation, is done to protect their personal information. The Coordinator said the government through the information would know who went where and when. People’s movement shall be monitored by the state.”

This privacy invasive campaign comes only three months after Batswana surrendered a big part of their privacy to the fight against crime.  China’s Huawei Technologies Botswana in February finished installing 500 surveillance cameras in Gaborone and Francistown under the Safe City Project. The surveillance cameras will monitor streets, residential areas in Gaborone, and Francistown, as well as commercial buildings.

Dipheko Motube, the spokesperson of the Botswana Police Services which engaged the global information and technology (ICT) solutions provider to install the cameras said,

“the project aims to secure life and property of the two cities’ residents as well as countering terrorist activities effectively and efficiently.”  He further said, “these cameras will enable Botswana police to effectively deliver policing to citizens of Botswana through the use of advanced and world-class gadgets.”

Botswana’s move towards mass surveillance received a boost with the COVID-19 contact tracing, a control measure employed by governments across the world,  as a key strategy for preventing the spread of the pandemic.

In contact tracing, health officials work in collaboration with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact. These individuals are then warned by officials of their possible exposure to the virus. 

As a way to protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection. They are not told the identity of the patient who may have exposed them.

Since the patient may not know exactly who they may have come into contact with, especially in cases where the patient had been to a public place, health officials have to figure out who might have at the same time been at the same place as the patient.

As part of their decision to ease travel restrictions, the Botswana government recently ordered that all public places and transport register visitors and passengers to assist in contact tracing should there be a case. The public are required to provide full names, identity card number and age, place of residence, contact number, and time of entry to the various establishments they visit.

This week the COVID-19 Task Team Coordinator Dr Masupu announced this week that Botswana will be joining the rest of the world in using digital technology to monitor citizens. Dr Masupu said this would enable the government to trace who went where and when.

Other governments across the world have already turned to the technology for contact tracing purposes. The apps map the spread of Covid-19 enabling governments to carry out mass surveillance with experts warning it could possibly undermine public trust if carried out without regard for privacy.

The apps use proximity or location to alert mobile phone users when they have come into contact with an infected person. They use Bluetooth or geolocation data present in smartphones. A group of global scientists have raised concerns in an open letter about the possible abuse of the app by governments.

“Though the effectiveness of contact tracing Apps is controversial, we need to ensure that those implemented preserve the privacy of their users, thus safeguarding against many other issues, noting that such Apps can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance.”

Botswana has yet introduced the app, the current manual system presents its own invasive surveillance risks and threat to individual privacy.

While some have on social media made tongue in cheek remarks about such information being used by partners to stalk one another, some have raised a red flag about possible devastating consequences of the current practice.

Some people have argued that exposing such information to strangers opens the door for identity thieves who could use people’s personal information for fraudulent purposes. It is not clear what the various establishments themselves do with the information at the end of the day. “We expect businesses to submit the registrations to the government because the information is meant for government consumption,” Masupu has said. One of the biggest illegal activities involving personal information especially contacts in Botswana has been that of marketing purposes.

Mobile network companies have especially been guilty of the practice. To guard against unlawful use of personal data the government introduced the Data Protection Act in 2018. The act stipulates that any entity that processes personal data should have a lawful basis for doing so.

“A data controller shall ensure that personal data is collected for specific, explicitly stated and legitimate purposes. The data should not be processed for any purpose that is incompatible with specified, explicitly stated and legitimate purposes. The personal data should be protected by reasonable security safeguards against risks such as loss, unauthorized access, destruction, use, modification or disclosure,” reads section 14 of the Data Protection Act, 2018.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.