Contact tracing: Is your phone really spying on you?

A young black woman with cool purple braids checks her phone. Smartphones can be used for Covid-19 contact tracing.

Stop whatever you’re doing, pick up your phone and go to “Settings”.

In the “Search” function: type “Covid19” into the search bar – and watch as it autocompletes your request to the phrase “Covid-19 exposure notifications”.

(This works on both iPhones and Android devices.)

Once you click through, you’ll see your worst fears about surveillance and invasive tech companies appear to have come to pass!

But could it really be true that your phone can tell you (and others, including the government 😲) whether you have Covid-19?

Spoiler alert: No! Well, not really. At least, not yet.

Tech geeks say, the feature — which appears on the latest phone operating system updates — is not an app in and of itself, but lays the technical groundwork that supports separate contract tracing apps that are being developed by governments and health agencies. It links a phone’s Bluetooth and GPS functions to such an app, allowing it to digitally trace where people have been and who they’ve had contact with.

So is there an app for that here in South Africa?

Some countries like Australia, Singapore, Israel, India and others already have contact tracing apps, but South Africa doesn’t… yet.

We reached out to various people at the department of health to find out whether such an app is in development and when it might be ready; there’s been no response yet but we’ll update this article as soon as one arrives. (We’re told their boss reads our site, though… hey Minister Mkhize, tell your guys to call us back! 📞😁)

But even though we don’t have specific apps for contact tracing, South Africa has built a digital Covid-19 tracing database anyway. It was created by the health department in March, soon after South Africa’s first case was reported, and instead of collecting the data directly from an app on your phone it sources information from network providers like Vodacom, Cell C and MTN to trace people who have come into contact with anyone thought to have the virus. This kind of tracking is totally legal (👀), and covered by the Disaster Management Act, which lets the government, with permission from the providers, collect data about people’s location and movements. 

And, like FBI agents from a TV show, the health department can ask the networks to use their location data to triangulate the position “of any person known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact” with a person who tests positive for Covid-19.

Names, surnames, ID numbers, addresses and cellphone numbers of people who have been tested for Covid-19 are also stored in the government’s database. A record is also kept of their test results, along with details of their known or suspected contacts. If the system picks up, through your phone’s geolocation, that you have been in contact with someone with Covid-19, a health worker is meant to notify you and you’ll have to isolate for 14 days.

How’s the existing system working out? 

We put this question to the department of health, too, and will add their response as soon as we get it. (Seriously though, Uncle Zweli, 📞😥). Have you been contacted out of the blue by a contact tracer? Let us know in the comments!

Tracking and tracing is all well and good when it comes to Covid-19, but all around the world people are wondering what else governments can do and perhaps even are already doing with this Big Brother-level surveillance. And asking the critical question…

Is my information safe?

The government says YES. In South Africa, only certain people in the department of health can even look at the information they’ve gathered. By law, within six weeks after the national state of disaster has lapsed, the department MUST notify every person that their information has been obtained. Within that same period, the information in the tracing database must be anonymised if it is to be used for research, studying and teaching purposes. The government has also said that no voice conversations and messages will be listened to or read.

As an extra layer of safety, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola appointed former Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Regan to keep an eye on things, and monitor how the state is using our personal data for Covid-19 tracing, and the good people at the health department are supposed to report to her weekly. (We’re sure they are. Would be nice if they could tell us that themselves though 🙄.)

Hmmm, I’m still not sure how to feel. And your emojis aren’t helping!


What’s everyone’s problem with all this contact tracing stuff, then?

Privacy is by far the biggest worry. People worry that hackers or a government wanting to violate citizens’ privacy can access and use the data for the wrong reasons. Or sell it off to insurance companies who use it to raise your premiums because you live next door to someone who had Covid-19. Stuff like that. But governments do seem to be taking data security seriously — for now, anyway.

Another far less conspiratorial (but probably more likely) issue is that when two phones automatically sync to swap Covid-19 notes with each other over Bluetooth, the connection can be interrupted — poor signal, maybe, or the battery runs out — which can lead to a mismatch or no match at all. If two people’s phones did not connect, and one person tests positive, the other person would be at risk without knowing it. Awkward.

And then finally we must remember that not everyone has access to a smartphone or is tech-savvy. So some vulnerable people could be left behind. As one data scientist told the BBC:  “I worry that it’s the people who don’t have [compatible] phones and are utterly in the blind spot of this. And people who do not have the luxury of worrying about getting sick because they simply need the money from their high-risk jobs. That means these apps will not get widely adopted.”

So what are the advantages of a digital approach to contact tracing?

Manual contact tracing has definitely been shown to help slow the spread of viruses and dangerous diseases. From polio and bird flu to HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and even Ebola. It’s also a useful way for governments to better understand what they’re dealing with and how a disease spreads.

Until now, though, it’s been a human-driven task, with people literally picking up the phone or going door-to-door.

So, in theory anyway, digital contact tracing is not as laborious, risky or time-consuming. Plus, the information obtained through digital means can be more dependable and accurate than relying on people’s memories to get the same information.

And it’s quicker to send an alert to someone’s phone than to seek them out in person and knock on their door.

OK, I’m convinced. Can I take off my mask and stop washing my hands so often?

Heck, no! Your phone can’t stop the spread of Covid-19, no matter how much Big Brother syncing is going on. It’s an aid for manual contact tracing and helps health experts understand and react to the big picture. But it has to be used alongside standard precautions like hand washing and social distancing.

Keep that mask firmly in place, will you? 😷

Okay that’s it for now. We’ll let you know when the department of health gets back to us.

For now we’ll leave you with this video about the privacy concerns surrounding contact tracing. Stay safe out there!