- The health department has looked at the feasibility of a system to monitor people’s location and movements using cellphone data.
- It concluded active contact tracing would be a better solution.
- A digital contact tracing system currently in use allows individuals to receive their results and share contacts.
The national health department looked at the feasibility of a surveillance system that could track the movement of citizens to help it fight Covid-19, but it didn’t work out, a national official revealed to Western Cape MPLs.
“There was an attempt to develop a system to allow us to do that, however technical complexities and privacy concerns, and the protection of that, moved us towards active contact tracing,” said the department’s chief director of policy coordination and integrated planning Milani Wolmarans.
Wolmarans was briefing the Western Cape legislature’s ad hoc committee on Covid-19 on Friday.
The committee had been concerned about the privacy of individuals and whether their rights were being protected.
Between 17 April and 14 May, the department had worked on developing a proof of concept to see whether it would be possible to establish a surveillance system using data provided by mobile network operators.
The goal of the system would have been to determine the location and movement of positive cases, as well as how many people had been in close contact with them, said Wolmarans.
‘RICA info has also got its difficulties’
But based on the technology available in South Africa and the volumes of cases expected, it would have taken days for the department to get that information.
This made the information null and void.
She said it was difficult to get a person’s location and even more difficult to track their movement, as this information needed to come from cellphone towers.
“It was complex to get within a two-metre radius of an individual. In most of the rural areas, it would have been 100m, and within some of the peri-urban areas, it would have been 50m.
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“RICA info has also got its difficulties.”
She said some people who took out cellphone contracts had given their phones to other people, so the contract address was not the same as the address of the user.
It might also happen that a person’s phone was temporarily in another person’s possession.
Wolmarans said they presented their strict protocols on data collection to Covid-19 Judge Kate O’Reagan.
“According to my knowledge, there was no breach or leak and the data was totally encrypted.”
The database had since been destroyed, leaving only names and contact numbers.
A digital contact tracing system was currently operational in all provinces and would soon be launched by the health minister, said Wolmarans.
The system is automated and uses machine learning and chat bots.
A person gets an SMS asking if they would like to receive their test results. If positive, a chat bot asks the individual to share the details of people they have been in contact with in the last seven to 10 days.
“The key is… to inform citizens that if they get a specific message, it’s not a hoax but a real message and they should react.”
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