Data ProtectionGDPR ComplianceProtection of Personal Information

The Challenge of Covid19 tracing apps in the South African context

Nobukhosi Dlamini challenge of contact tracing apps

Countries around the world have been battling the Covid19 pandemic and trying to find innovative ways to curb the spread of the virus for the most part of 2020. One of the strategies that has been employed which has controversial implications to data protection and privacy principles is contact tracing. Contact tracing is a measure or process whereby the movements of those who are infected and the people with whom they were in contact are monitored.

At the beginning of April 2020 the South Africa government introduced the COVID-19 Contact Tracing measures as part of the Amendment to the Disaster Management Act Regulations. The Minister of Communications painstakingly assured the public that these measures were aimed at curbing the spread of the virus and not to spy at citizens or violate privacy. The Minister was quoted as saying “In a situation like this, individual rights do not supersede the country’s rights. The most important and critical right is ensuring the safety of South Africans”. This statement seemed to imply that data protection is a trade-off the Minister was ready to make in the quest to implement the contact tracing strategy. It seems that privacy rights are limited under this state of emergency and subject to the strict protocols which have been set out in the Amendment to the Disaster Management Act.

Since this announcement was made a lot has happened and we recently saw Google and Apple jointly release an API to facilitate the development of contact tracing apps by health agencies and government organisations. Many countries have developed their own contact tracing apps in response to the pandemic. In Qatar for example, the government has mandated citizens to download and use the contact tracing app or face legal repercussions.

However, the South African government has struggled to enforce the contact tracing part of the regulations. Even though most South Africans own cellular phones, a large portion of the population does not have smartphones, so the app solutions would not be adequate. The Minister of Communications had been counting on the telecommunication companies to provide the tracking information of its subscribers. However, the network providers have been unable to deliver geolocation data to the required accuracy.

Until a more suitable and practical solution is identified, the Department of Health continues to use manual methods to conduct contact tracing.