Coronavirus: Controversies

Use of call records for contact tracing a concern in India

Officials in four Indian states said that accessing call data records was a necessary and accepted method of contact tracing. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Officials in four Indian states said that accessing call data records was a necessary and accepted method of contact tracing. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Kerala government's decision to collect the phone call records of Covid-19 patients in the state has sparked concerns in India about breaches of privacy becoming routine during the pandemic.

On Aug 13, Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of the southern state, said that the police were using call details to determine how many people had come into contact with Covid-19 patients. Kerala's opposition parties said that this "infringes on patient privacy".

The police in many states collaborate with health and municipality workers to trace contacts, enforce social distancing and quarantine rules, and manage containment zones. But state officials now admit that the police may also be accessing Covid-19 patients' call records.

Kerala is not the only state using phone records to trace whereabouts. Late last month, a 30-year-old in the Davanagere district of Karnataka was awaiting his Covid-19 test results, when friends he frequently spoke to on the phone called him to say that state officials had informed them he had tested positive.

The first known instance of call records being accessed in India for the Covid-19 response was when the Andhra Pradesh government used the method to trace participants of a Tablighi Jamaat religious meeting in Delhi in March. Officials collected call details of all phones that were in Delhi's Nizamuddin neighbourhood during the meeting, and traced more than 13,000 people who may have been exposed throughout the country.

"The Tablighi incident seems to have set the pattern to treat patients like criminals, and do contact tracing through any means," said Mr T. Sundararaman, India convenor of the People's Health Movement.

By law, the police can collect call records only during a criminal investigation. But officials in four states told The Straits Times that accessing call data records was a necessary and accepted method of contact tracing.

A Chhattisgarh state official who was in charge of the Covid-19 response said: "We initially used call records to find the Tablighi Jamaat people. But later we used them for other persons as well, when people misguided us about their whereabouts."

The Uttar Pradesh police have been accessing call records for months in Lucknow, Noida and Ghaziabad districts. A senior policeman there said: "There is no formal or general order about taking call data, but if somebody has evaded quarantine or run away, it is tantamount to a crime under the Epidemic Diseases Act. In that case, police collect call records."

Dr Amar Fettle, Kerala's nodal officer for Covid-19 efforts, said that the state accessed call records as early as March to trace contacts of a family that had returned from Italy but had not revealed vital information about their movements.

"Initially, the health department collected this call data. But later, the government gave the task to the police. The feeling seems to be that people won't reveal their details properly to doctors and nurses and they will be more scared of a person in uniform," said Dr Fettle.

Privacy is a fundamental right in India, but the government has not yet passed a law to protect it.

Mr Apar Gupta, executive director of digital rights group the Internet Freedom Foundation, said using call records for contact tracing was worrying.

"It is operationalised through police departments rather than health government offices… It lacks safeguards such as purpose limitations and, due to lack of any oversight, has the potential for being used for extraneous purposes," said Mr Gupta.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2020, with the headline 'Use of call records for contact tracing a concern in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe