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Keeping track of surveillance in the time of coronavirus

As the world attempts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have taken steps to put quarantined people under surveillance to ensure their compliance. MediaNama has prepared a list of technical measures taken by within and outside India to track this concerning development.

We will keep updating this list regularly.


A panel of joint secretaries at the Ministry of Home Affairs has given an in-principle proposal to an IPS officer’s proposal to use technical data, AI and geo-fencing to trace people who have come in contact with infected people, the Hindu reported.

  • Karnataka: The Karnataka government will track phones of people placed under quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Karnataka Minister of Medical Education Dr K. Sudhakar said in the Karnataka Assembly on March 18, the News Minute reported. The Home Department is reportedly assisting with tracking phones, but the police is not involved. The state government is also looking to “geofence” patients who have been quarantined at their homes, the Hindu reported.
  • Mumbai: The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has asked the Mumbai Police to track movements of international travellers through their GPS locations, the Indian Express Reported. BMC took this step because “nothing has succeeded” in ensuring that international passengers remain in the mandatory 14-day quarantine, according to the report.
  • Tamil Nadu: The Tamil Nadu government is using geofencing to make sure that people suspected of infection remain in quarantine, Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar said in an interview with the Hindu. This was done because passengers with travel history to other countries were “not cooperating” and didn’t “follow basic instructions”. “Now, we have connected the 4,250 people who have been quarantined with a mobile app, and are treating them online,” he told the Hindu.

Across the world

Other countries have also considered similar moves around monitoring whether or not people stick to their quarantines.


On March 21, the Singaporean government released TraceTogether, an app to help in contact tracing. The app uses Bluetooth to identify other nearby phones with the app, but not their location. “It then tracks when you are in close proximity with these other persons, including timestamps. If the need arises, this information can then be used to identify close contacts based on the proximity and duration of an encounter between the two users,” as per the official website.

If a person is diagnosed with the virus, they can allow the Ministry of Health to access the data in the app to identify close contacts. Data is stored in the phone itself for 21 days and is not accessed unless the individual is identified as a “close contact”. For communication between two phones via Bluetooth, phone numbers are anonymised.

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United Kingdom

NHSX, the digital arm of UK’s National Health Services (NHS), is reportedly developing a contact tracking app to monitor the spread of COVID-19, Digital Health reported. The app will operate on an opt-in basis and “alert people to new cases in their area”. It will allow users to input their own symptoms, according to the report. A team at Oxford University is reportedly working on it.

Another company, BT, which owns one of the biggest mobile operators in UK, EE, is in talks with the government about whether its phone location and usage data can be used to monitor the effectiveness of stay at home measure, the Guardian reported. As per the report, only anonymised data will be shared and information on geographical movement will be delayed by 12 to 24 hours. Other operators in UK, such as O2, have said that they are helping the government build models of the spread of the virus, but have not handed over user data, the report said.


The Polish Ministry of Digital Affairs launched a Home Quarantine application on March 19 that will use GPS location, time-stamped photos, and facial recognition to ensure that citizens stay at home. As per its terms of services, the government will use this service to ensure that people instructed to remain in quarantine do so.

The app will routinely ask users to share their location which must match with their GPS location. They will also be asked to take a photo at the location and complete a “task” within 20 minutes of receiving the message from the government. If this is not done, action could be taken against the person by authorities.

The app will also allow users to send requests for meals, groceries, and psychological help which must be approved by authorities before people are allowed to step out of quarantine. It will also give access to information related to COVID-19, and to directly contact services supervising quarantined people.

This account is valid for 14 days from date of activation unless the quarantine period ends earlier. Even after deactivation, the personal data will be retained for 6 years, as per the Polish Civil Code. The user is obligated to inform the authorities of any new symptoms or change of location via the app. The information can be shared with police, central IT centre, and Centre of Health Information Systems.

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Google, Facebook, and other major tech firms are in talks with the US government to use people’s location data to combat the spread of COVID-19, the Washington Post reported. The companies would share aggregated, anonymised data with the government to estimate the chances of transmission between different regions in the US. The measures could also be used to check if people adhere to government-ordered containment measures such as social distancing, the report said.


On March 22, the Israeli Health Ministry launched a new app, Hamagen (which means “the shield” in Hebrew), that will allow users to know if they had crossed paths with an infected person, the Times of Israel reported. After installation on either iOS or Android devices, the app reportedly tracks their movements and compares it with the Health Ministry data which lists all places that infected people have been. As per the report, the ministry said that the information is only stored on the user’s device. “The Health Ministry data is updated all the time and are sent to your phone unilaterally for the purpose of cross-reference,” the statement said according to the report.

On March 17, the Israeli government had approved giving emergency powers to Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, to monitor the mobile phones of people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, the Guardian reported. Through this, the government will retrace the movements of such people to identify others who need to be quarantined and send them alerts if they need to be quarantined. This technology was developed in Israel for counterrorism purposes. This cybermonitoring would be in effect for 30 days.


The Ministry of ICT developed an app that, on the face of it, asks users for their symptoms and geo-location to recommend nearest testing centres to you, but actually continues to monitor their location and monitors users’ physical activity (sitting, walking, running). Iranian researcher Nariman Gharib had first tweeted about this and his claims were supported by Avast, the cyber security firm.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong started putting electronic wristbands on all arriving passengers on March 19 to ensure that they complied with the mandatory 14-day quarantine, CNBC reported. According to one such person, whom CNBC quoted, on arriving home, people are instructed to walk the corners of their house so that the app can track the coordinates of the living space where they will be quarantined.

The wristbands have a QR code that the user scans using an app, the Fortune reported. Using “communication signals”, it then ensures that the wearer remains within their home. The Chief Information Officer Victor Lam has said that these bands do not track location, but only “changes in the location”. If the wristband is broken or the smartphone is disconnected or removed from the living space, an alear will be sent to the Department of Health and police.

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South Korea

According to a Straits Times report, for contact tracing, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention interview the patients and verify their locations using CCTV footage, credit card records and mobile phone GPS data. The government then sends text messages to its citizens that trace the movements of people who have recently been diagnosed with the virus, the Guardian reported. In the first week of March, the Ministry of the Interior had also launched an app to track the quarantined and collect data on symptoms, the Science Magazine reported.


The country has enforced mandatory quarantine using phone tracking, the Guardian reported. Phones are tracked using SIM cards and their network stations. If people in quarantine move away from that address or turn of their phones, local police and officials are alerted, and they contact/visit the person within 15 minutes, the Straits Times reported.


Europe’s largest telco Deutsche Telekom transferred 5GB anonymised customer data to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) on March 17, German publication Der Tagesspiegel reported. RKI is the organisation handling Germany’s response to the pandemic. From the report, it is understood that this is the first of such transfers. This data sharing will reportedly allow researchers to model the spread of the virus down to a district/community level.

The RKI reportedly want to check the effectiveness of restrictions on public life by tracking whether people’s mobility had reduced, RKI President Lothat Wieler had told Der Spiegel.


Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Communication (NBTC) is giving a free SIM card to every Thai and foreigner who is travelling from high-risk countries such as China, Macau, Hong Kong, South Korea, Italy and Iran, the Nation, a Thai newspaper, reported. This SIM, along with the AOT (Airports of Thailand) Airports app (released on March 12), will reportedly be used to track the location of the users for 14 days to ensure that they stay quarantined. The app will alert authorities if people leave their designated quarantine areas and after 14 days, “it will stop tracking and the system will delete the data immediately”. If people refuse to take the SIM or download the AOT Airports app, they will not be allowed to enter the country, as per the report.


The Chinese police have been using Hangzhou Health Code, developed by Alipay, wherein an automated system assigns users different colours (red, yellow, green) to decide if the users should quarantine themselves or not, according to a New York Times report.

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This list will be regularly updated. If you know of any government-sponsored apps or technologies that are being used to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, email me at aditi@medianama.com.

Written By

Send me tips at aditi@medianama.com. Email for Signal/WhatsApp.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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