Charles Cilliers
Journalist
2 minute read
2 Apr 2020
6:58 pm

We can track your location from your phone, but won’t spy on you, minister reassures SA

Charles Cilliers

The state has gazetted regulations allowing the health department to track who a Covid-19-positive person may have had contact with.

Picture: iStock

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni Abrahams at a ministerial briefing on Thursday evening in Pretoria explained how government will be using people’s cellphones to track the movements of Covid-19-positive using the geolocation data on their cellphones.

She assured the public that this was being done within the law and in partnership with the department of health. She further said that this measure would not allow government to indiscriminately intercept telephone conversations of citizens.

In effect cellphones will be pinged for tracing purposes to see who was around a Covid-19 infected person.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said this was not a means to spy on anyone; it would ensure a quicker turnaround time for contact tracing.

Local government minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had earlier also weighed in on the issue, saying that cellphone technology would be very helpful.

“When you are in places where you are with strangers, your cellphone will ping off the nearest tower registering all your contacts as well,” she said.

Ndabeni-Abrahams further explained that the reason courier services were added to the list of essential services was to support retailers in delivering products, including cellphones, for people who had ordered them online. This would ensure there were fewer people in shops and to minimise the risk.

In regulations gazetted on Thursday, the department of health explained the cellphone measure was part of developing and maintaining a national database to “enable the tracing of persons who are known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with any person known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19”.

The database will include the name and surname of the person, their ID number, address, cellphone number and outcome of their Covid-19 test, along with location data to support tracing efforts.

The director-general of the department of health now has the power to ask cellphone companies to provide the location and movement of any person known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19.

Cellphone companies may be asked to provide location data between March 5 and the duration of the state of disaster.

“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,” read the gazetted regulations.

The information from cellphone data may be retained by the director-general of health for of six weeks and must be destroyed after that.

“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 will have to appoint a dedicated judge to oversee the tracing and tracking, and will be given weekly reports.

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