by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) At the time of writing, over a billion people have been locked down in self isolation. While some fixate on the availability of toilet paper, most of us are calling for more information on the spread of the covid-19. It’s an issue vexing the minds of governments, including our own leaders in South Africa. And it’s an issue laden with complexity. What data should be gathered and what should be shared? Do we, for example, have a right to know if our neighbours or colleagues are contagious?

While it might be handy to be told that Thembi from no. 43 has a dry cough so you can keep a safe distance when putting out the rubbish, we’re already hearing reports of vigilantes dispensing mob justice to keep their communities safe. About 10 days ago, the Daily Mail reported that a Kenyan man was beaten to death by a group of thugs who suspected he might have had the coronavirus.

Counter-terrorism methods to track infected

Meanwhile, CNN reported that Israel approved the use of cellphone tracking technology to monitor suspected coronavirus patients — a measure that had previously only been adopted in the fight against organised terrorism.

As countries around the world step up their efforts to fight the spread of the disease, there are very real concerns that our personal privacy is at risk. While the Israelis have claimed that its security agency is passing information straight to its Ministry of Health and that its spies won’t store data or record tracked patients phone calls, it must be damned tempting for them.

Back home, on Thursday evening, 19 March 2020, Pansy Tlakula, our information regulator chairperson, released a statement (pdf) calling on our government to “streamline the proactive disclosure of all information relating to the virus”. Part of the message focused on the need for effective fact-checking to curtail the transmission of fake news (which has been spreading faster than the virus itself) but, for the most part, it centred on the importance for public and private bodies to put safeguards in place to ensure that personal information is secure and not used for any purpose other than intended.

POPI acts

The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) is due to come into effect tomorrow, Wednesday 1 April, and while there will be a grace period before sanctions are imposed on offenders, the covid-19 crisis brings into sharp focus the moral dilemma of what information we should be capturing and what we should be sharing.

The pandemic has led to a massive increase in internet traffic as more of us work from home, as we scour the web for updates, shop online and otherwise try to keep ourselves entertained. While the internet will play a pivotal role in helping the world function during these trying times, we need to be cognisant that every search and click we make is being tracked.

Over in the US, its government has confirmed it’s been talking to the tech giants to find out how it can use location data to track the spread of the coronavirus [meanwhile, SA mobile operators will also be giving our government location data to do the same — ed-at-large].

Mustn’t be used as an excuse

Both Google and Facebook are working on ways of sharing data — and, while they say it will be anonymised and aggregated, neither has a great track record. Facebook, in particular, has been battling headwinds for years; just the other week the Wall St Journal reported (paywall) on the latest updates to a long-running lawsuit concerning Facebook’s wonky data.

Even if few governments are implementing Israeli-like monitoring, the very last thing we need is for tracking measures designed to contain the pandemic to be used as an excuse for greater state surveillance.

In this context I must commend our information regulator’s proactive stance in reminding her colleagues of their duty to safeguard our data. Whether they do though, only time will tell.

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Charlie StewartCharlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the regular column, “Clicks ‘n Tricks”, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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