How government will use cellphone data to track and trace Covid-19 cases

Justice minister Ronald Lamola has to appoint a 'Covid-19 judge' to oversee the tracing and tracking of people suspected to have contracted the virus.
Justice minister Ronald Lamola has to appoint a 'Covid-19 judge' to oversee the tracing and tracking of people suspected to have contracted the virus.
Image: 123RF/ANDRIY

Cellphone companies will provide the location and movement of anyone known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19 to the government - but will not disclose the content of conversations.

The utilisation of cellphone-location data to track and trace people across SA comes as the department of health ramps up its efforts to trace anyone suspected to have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19.

In regulations gazetted on Thursday, the department of health detailed its efforts to develop and maintain 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, which is confidential, will include the name and surname of the person, their ID number, address, cellphone number as well as the outcome of their Covid-19 test. Added to this, they can use location data to support their tracing efforts. However, interception of communication is not allowed.

In line with the regulations, the director-general of the department of health 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 can be asked to provide location data between March 5 and until the state of disaster has terminated.

“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,” the regulations read.

Last week, the government indicated its intention to use cellphone data in the fight against Covid-19 but cellphone companies were still unsure of its legality.

The regulations state that the information gathered through cellphone data may be retained by the DG of health for of six weeks and will have to be destroyed thereafter.

Offering the assurance that voice conversations and messages will not be listened to, the regulations explicitly state: “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 has to now appoint a “Covid-19 judge” to oversee the tracing and tracking and will receive weekly reports.


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