Home Blawgs Digital Surveillance Systems to Combat COVID-19: A Necessity?

Digital Surveillance Systems to Combat COVID-19: A Necessity?

As the world is struggling every day with the increasing number of cases of novel coronavirus and is trying to find its way back to the past as it was before COVID Pandemic a new type or rather a newer version of an old problem is making its way to the surface – Privacy Violation in the name of Surveillance.

With the slowly and steadily rising graph of patients infected with the virus and in an attempt to straighten the curve, many countries have now taken the help of technology, which now raises questions on its privacy regulations.

Digital Surveillance Systems Pic Courtesy - EPW.in
Digital Surveillance Systems Pic Courtesy – EPW.in

In India, Central and State governments have used technology like drones in the sky tracking people’s movement and checking their temperature making sure that they are not infected, facial recognition cams identifying individuals who broke lockdown in the active regions and the simplest of them all – a mobile application. An app called Aarogya Setu was launched back in April by the Prime Minister of India as a measure to fight coronavirus, which is a ‘digital contact tracing’ app that can inform users whether they are at a risk or at risk of exposure or not with other features.

But recent reports of many agencies working in the field of internet freedom and protection of privacy rights suggests that this app has been made mandatory for all the employees of government – state and central, all military personnel, and from delivery workers to construction workers. This is a kind of dangerous situation because India still doesn’t have a very comprehensive data privacy law to protect people’s personal data. It is not denying that technology and the internet have helped in controlling the virus outbreak to an extent but the thing that disturbs the most is that this violation should not become the permanent case in the future.

In a country that has an estimated 60% – 65% of the population poor or marginalized who doesn’t have any access to the internet, let alone a smartphone and constant power supply, making a smartphone app necessity to determine people’s livelihoods will affect them drastically. The worst of all is that the government is heavily relying on the technological or digital tracing than the widespread clinical testing and human contact tracing because there can be a simple but serious and intimidating situation – what if the app tells the health status of a person as ‘positive’ but in reality, it was a false positive, that person would be severely affected in many ways.

Most of the countries adopted The China Way to combat coronavirus that is the widespread use of latest and novel technologies like: Positioning technologies, Satellite monitoring, Robotics, Health sensors and apps, Drones, Big Data, and facial recognition, Artificial Intelligence, Mobile tracking/mass surveillance.

All this technology is effective against COVID-19 but it has generated mistrust among the general public. In the last couple of years, data leak or breaches like one of the biggest biometric data breaches in the Indian history – the Aadhar in the year 2018 which put the identity of around 1 billion citizens at risk and the Facebook breach has led to this serious crisis of trust on such digital technologies.

Mitigating this crisis of trust requires designing our legal and technical systems in ways that prioritize democratic control and individual autonomy. Strict jurisdictions are encouraged so that they can promote transparency, voluntarily given information, decentralized and privacy securing mechanisms, and also that the data that is being collected is strictly used for alleviating the risk of the virus and that these surveillance tools are dismantled once their work is done.

So, are digital technologies necessary in this war against this virus? Yes, they are necessary as they also form a part of the plan, but we should also not forget that without mass testing and human contact tracing and just relying on these techs is not going to help much in this pandemic time. Technology have been a tremendous resource for society in this time of crisis however we must also be vigilant enough for any misguided reliance on the technologies.

It is high time now that India needs to have its own, stringent and proper set of laws regulating the use of any individual’s personal data by any party and help secure and promote the Right to Privacy which has been given to all the citizens of this country under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.


Ayush Shrivastava

1st-year law student

Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh

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