The Indian Government is using several unprecedented ways to make sure the virus outbreak doesn’t spin out of control in India. Long term Lockdowns, contact tracing of patients and economic packages are some that come to mind.
However there’s one other aspect that it is pushing down our throats under the name of safety, and it may change the industry once and for all. That is the mass surveillance industry in India.
Before the virus outbreak, there were only murmurs of the use of technology to identify and trace people. Some cases were seen wherein the government used surveillance technology for the identification or national security concerns.
The Telangana State Election commission used a facial recognition app in an attempt to counter impersonation by voters on a pilot basis in selected polling stations. Even drones have been used several times with Prime Minister Modi, as a way to keep the crowds in check for national security reasons.
However, what we’re seeing now has never been seen before in the Indian context. The coronavirus outbreak has allowed the government to invade personal space and ask for records of citizens, under the pretext of contact tracing and maintaining patient records.
While it is certainly understandable why this needs to be done right now, mass surveillance poses an imminent threat to privacy and internet freedom.
Several state governments and now even the central government have come up with applications that facilitate contact tracing of possible patients. Under the pretext of contact tracing, these apps ask users to share personal information, GPS access and Bluetooth, which may help in its desired purpose, but could also be used for unfair means.
Another application which holds the potential of being intrusive is the Quarantine Watch application launched by the Karnataka state government. To see whether people stay put, the app follows users' movements through GPS — and asks them to submit hourly selfies to prove they haven't left the house. The scary thing is that the app also warned against any potential violation, stating that those who fail to send their selfies would be sent to "a government-run mass quarantine centre."
This kind of mass surveillance measures can cause problems even if they don’t intend to. For example, the Karnataka government released the complete addresses of an estimated 20,000 people under home quarantine in the state after having travelled abroad. They withheld the names but published these addresses on the government's official website.
Once these were available online, several families reported how they were subject to online abuses and threats on account of them having travelled aboard. Some people recognized the addresses and named the residents themselves, circulating the names with "Warning" tags and urging others not to go near those affected homes. This put the concerned people under unwanted public scrutiny and left them vulnerable to hate crimes.
The Problem With Mass Surveillance
Even in the little time in which India has implemented these measures, we can already see the downside of it. Cities like Delhi have resorted to placing stickers in front of the houses of people that have been advised home quarantine. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also revealed how phone numbers of more than 14,000 people have been shared with the government to enable them to keep a track virtually. Similarly in Rajasthan, the government made public the personal details of those under home-quarantine.
Agreed, these actions are being taken the safety of the citizens and in the larger interest of the society. But they’re already showing its downsides as well.
In Pune, for instance, a list of coronavirus suspects went viral on social media, leading to mass ostracisation. In Himachal Pradesh, a man died by suicide after facing social boycott for being suspected to have the coronavirus even though he tested negative.
Making private information public gives people the access to information they don’t know what to make of and how to use and more often than now it breeds wider stigma in the society. Additionally, the threat of being publicly threatened deter people from reporting their illnesses and revealing their travel/exposure history for the fear of social intimidation.
Therefore while Mass surveillance in times like these is necessary, it should also take into account privacy laws and data protection. When it comes to contact tracing there is a dire need for apps that are decentralized and respect privacy
We can only hope the mass surveillance efforts would tone down once the pandemic settles. Even if they are not, surveillance can only be fruitful and productive when it takes into account the interests for all parties and does its job as a regulator without intruding into people's basic fundamental rights.