South Africa’s plan to track coronavirus cases using smartphones has a massive flaw

The government’s plan to use cellphone data to track the movement of positive COVID-19 cases in South Africa has a serious problem, according to a report by The Sunday Times.

According to the report, the system is struggling to get off the ground, with not a single person who has tested positive for the virus being tracked to date.

“We are finalising the data linkages to receive the information, and this is not fully operational as yet,” the Department of Health told The Sunday Times.

“We have been continuing with our current method of contact tracing until the IT system is fully functional.”

While MTN and Vodacom have provided location data to the government, Vodacom said that it has no historic data available to trace subscribers who placed a call within a specific coverage area.

“It is therefore not possible to determine the proximity of subscribers in that cell coverage area to the location of the COVID-19-positive subscriber,” Vodacom said.

Impossible to track

Cyanre Digital Forensic Lab’s Danny Myburgh told The Sunday Times that cellphone triangulation in South Africa is simply not accurate enough to track people everywhere.

He said it was possible to use cellphone triangulation to track locations within 100 metres in areas with dense coverage, but this would not work across the whole country.

“In rural areas, this goes into kilometres.”

“It would be impossible to track who these people have come into contact with accurately,” Myburgh said.

Another cellphone analyst told the publication that interpreting the data would be a massive undertaking, one which South Africa simply does not have the capacity to accomplish.

“You would need teams and teams of people to analyse the data, and the capacity is simply not there,” the analyst said.

Tracking South Africans using smartphones

The South African government first detailed its plan to track citizens who have tested positive for the coronavirus using their smartphones at the beginning of April.

Amendments to the National Disaster Act published on 2 April showed that South Africans who test positive for the coronavirus will have their personal information stored on a national database, along with their cellphone numbers.

The government will then work with mobile operators to track these positive cases based on their cellphone numbers, as well as to identify and track anyone who they may have come into contact with.

The amendments to the regulations allow the health department to access location and movement data of anyone suspected to have contracted COVID-19, and this information can be accessed without the knowledge or approval of the subject being tracked.

Citizens who are listed on the contact tracing database will be able to be tracked in this manner until the national state of disaster has been terminated.

It is important to note that this information may only be retained for six weeks, after which it must be destroyed.

“Nothing in this regulation entitles the Director-General Health or any other person to intercept the contents of any electronic communication,” the regulations added.

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South Africa’s plan to track coronavirus cases using smartphones has a massive flaw