The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is potentially the worst global crisis the world has faced since WWII. Governments, institutions and individuals around the world are taking drastic measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19 - whose effects spare no one. The pandemic comes at a period when the world has been experiencing rapid scientific and technological advancements, as seen with the expansive use of the Internet and the rise of social media.

It is therefore only natural that Internet-related interventions are explored in efforts to create awareness of and contain the spread of COVID-19.

Working from home, for instance, has only been made possible by the Internet. Social media has facilitated that while in quarantine, people keep in touch with each other. Governments and institutions are also able to issue communications and keep people informed. Indeed, we are seeing an Internet that connects humanity in deep and beneficial ways.

Digital surveillance in the time of COVID-19

The fast pace of the disease has also prompted government to further their COVID-19 surveillance measures. Such measures include cellphone surveillance. According to a New York Times article South Korea’s,government agencies are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace the recent movements of coronavirus patients and establish virus transmission chains (contact tracing).

In Lombardy, Italy, the authorities are analyzing location data transmitted by citizens’ mobile phones to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown order and the typical distances they move every day. About 40 percent are moving around “too much,” an official recently said. In Israel, the country’s internal security agency is poised to start using a cache of mobile phone location data — originally intended for counterterrorism operations — to try to pinpoint citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.

What African countries are doing

African countries are not to be left behind as recently, South African cellphone companies agreed to give the government cellphone location data in order to help fight against Covid-19. Many other countries are using different forms of cellphone surveillance as they try to fight the pandemic. As surveillance increases, user privacy diminishes. Sensitive user information is being accessed by governments and their institutions. This poses great risks of abuse, with potentially dire consequences for users in the future.

While containing the spread of COVID-19 is of utmost urgency and importance, safeguarding private data of users is equally important. According to a recently published Digital Whitepaper by Mozilla, government should use openness and inclusivity as a framework to guide such measures, and ensure that people’s privacy is put first. Citizens should be made aware of how their data is going to be used, why and for how long.

Governments should be accountable enough to collect and use only the data that they need and discard what they don’t. Data collected should further be stored in a decentralized system to prevent malicious actors from accessing it en masse.

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