Mobile tracing and tracking app

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Government is tracking you via your mobile phone: Here’s how and why

Government has been criticised for ‘sneaking’ applications onto phones without permission; but the truth is, you need to opt-in, even if the terms and conditions aren’t that clear.

Mobile tracing and tracking app

Image via Adobe Stock

The Department of Health is using mobile technology as a civilian tracking system aimed at strengthening government’s COVID-19 database.

While the recent announcement, ratified in a government gazette signed by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Thursday night, has been promulgated in various forms since the beginning of lockdown; amendments to the ‘COVID -19 Database’ clause afford the Department of Health a greater degree of oversight.

Importantly, the law allows government to use mobile technology for the purpose of geospatial hotspot mapping, tracking and tracing aimed at “addressing, preventing or combatting the spread of COVID -19”.

Government tracking mobile phones

South African citizens concerned about government knowing their every move via mobile tracking applications are not crazed conspiracy theorists. In fact, the Department of Health has been given the go ahead to intensify its technological toolbox in an attempt to populate the national database and act swiftly on contact tracing concerns.

While the controversial mobile tracking strategy has raised several red flags surrounding the protection of privacy and personal information, government argues that stringent regulations — coupled with a voluntary opt-in directive — have been impeented to safeguard citizens while still assisting the state in its battle against the coronavirus. Amendments to the law state:

“The National Department of Health may develop and implement electronic systems or applications to be used on mobile devices or computers in order to collect, on a voluntary basis, information from members of the public for inclusion in the COVID-19 Database.”

Further regulations governing the gathering of information by government bodies stress the importance of transparency and consent, noting the following seven terms and conditions:

“The information concerned is only obtained from users of mobile devices and computers on a voluntary and opt -in basis; in order to obtain the necessary consent from the user of the mobile device or computer, the terms and conditions of the electronic system or application must explain and request the user’s express consent;

  1. which information will be collected and stored via the electronic system or application
  2. the means by which the information will be collected and stored
  3. the purposes for which any information will be collected and used
  4. the entities or persons to which that information will be transmitted, and under what conditions
  5. whether the information will be kept on the user’s mobile device or a centralised server
  6. the period for which the information will be retained
  7. the notice that will be given to users when the information has been destroyed

Additionally, the law allows for government to receive personal information from private entities, including mobile service providers and financial institutions.  

Mobile apps and security concerns

While government has listed a host of checks and balances — primarily associated with the responsibilities of the Director -General of Health — some South Africans may voluntarily opt-in to the tracing programme by simply accessing an update delivered by government to the mobile device.

Weary citizens claim that government’s terms and conditions have been woven into a web of fine print which is not easily identifiable when attempting to access information from the Department of Health. South Africans complain that they have ‘unknowingly’ opted-in to the programme and have found ‘hidden’ tracing applications which operate as a background process.