7 PM Editorial |Potential Harms and Limitations of using Digital Technology to Combat a Pandemic| 8th June 2020


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Potential Harms and Limitations of using Digital Technology to Combat a Pandemic


COVID 19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented public health crisis in India and the world. To tackle the same, digital tools like Aarogya Setu are being deployed to perform tasks like contact tracing, hotspot recognition.

While good intentions of using digital technology are laudable, there are pitfalls in its use. These tools involve surveillance which raises questions of civil liberties – Privacy, right to movement, right of association. In addition there are limitations to use of such technologies. Only by understanding these dangers can we build a coherent and acceptable response to all.

Digital tools as response and civil liberties:

Data at individual level is needed for tracking disease outbreaks. This involves personal data like where a person has stayed and travelled, with whom he/she has interacted. This is sensitive data which impacts civil liberties of privacy, right to movement, right of association. Hence it needs to be protected appropriately. There is a need for a legal framework to provide data security and also to ensure trust of people in the process. Digital tools used as response to outbreaks must also be subject to such legal frameworks to protect civil liberties. This brings checks and balances, accountability to government functioning.

This legal framework must address following:

  1. Responsibilities of different levels of government in implementing pandemic and epidemic response
  2. Proportionality of restrictions on civil liberties
  3. Grievance redressal where individuals can challenge the actions of government if it impinges on their civil liberties. Challenging quarantine and isolation orders is an example.
  4. Data – proportionality, security, safeguards:
    1. Which data need to be collected and what are the objectives of collecting data?
    2. Proportionality of data i.e. only data which is needed to achieve the objective must be collected and nothing more
    3. Consent of individuals while collecting of data
    4. Deletion of data when objective is met
    5. Preventing access to such data. Defining who can access which data and need for the same. At local level granular data is needed whereas at state and national level anonymized data is needed.
India and outbreak response:

In India, NCDC -National Centre for Disease Control is responsible for disease surveillance and containment measures. WHO’s 2015 report on compliance with International Health Regulations(binding on India) concluded that India lacks effective legislation for effective outbreak response. It notes lack of Standard operating Procedures to involve legal procedures and for coordination between states and centre during outbreaks.

In absence of comprehensive legislation, Epidemic Diseases Act(EDA), 1886 and Disaster Management Act(DMA), 2005 are being used for combating COVID 19 pandemic in India. Former gives states powers to undertake response measures like quarantine, collection of data. But there are no safeguards to prevent misuse of data and infringement on civil liberties. DMA, 2005 is being used by the centre to formulate a National response plan and issue binding guidelines to states to implement it. This top down approach is not effective for tackling the pandemic.

Digital tools being used as part of response are also prone to misuse without legal and procedural safeguards. Aarogya setu and patient tracking tools which collect personal sensitive data can be used for behaviour profiling. Drones being used for surveillance collect images which can be used for targeting communities. Concerns of surveillance state arise when access to data is not limited. In addition there are no provision of consent, deletion of data, restriction on access to data.

Hence India needs comprehensive public health legislation to deal with concerns of civil liberties arising out of outbreak response. Such legislation must balance Privacy and genuine need for public health in line with the Supreme Court judgment on Right to privacy(Puttaswamy judgment). WHO guidelines on ‘Ethical Issues in Public Health Surveillance’ can be used for the same which provide for consent, restricted access etc. International experiences of canada and south korea can be studied.

Canada: Quarantine Act, 2005 provides for balance of individual liberties with need for disease surveillance.  Act provides for powers during an outbreak and limits these powers. Limits include right to challenge a quarantine order, the obligation to seek consent or a warrant to inspect a dwelling place, and to give notice to an individual whose personal information is shared by the government in order to prevent the spread of the infection

South Korea: Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act, 2009 provides for obligation to notify individuals on data collection and deletion of data when objective is met

Limitations of digital tools as outbreak response:

Aarogya setu achieves digital contract tracing. But it requires self reporting by individuals to be successful. Due to low testing in India this self reporting is also low. In addition, only smartphone users can be traced with it. Bluetooth which is used for tracking does not take into consideration the presence of walls.

Using cell phone site location, global positioning systems, and data from call records for tracking also has limitations. People not owning cell phones and multiple people owning the same cell phone and remote areas without signal coverage are not accounted for. Response to the Ebola outbreak of 2014 in Sierra Leone has shown such limitations.

Hence even with such digital tools, there is a need for ground level efforts by governments to do contact tracing and verify digital data. Governments cannot rely completely on digital tools


Exceptional times like COVID 19 pandemic, need prioritizing of public health. Such priority may impinge on certain individual liberties. But there is a need for accountability from the government for its actions. All digital tools must comply with public health legislation which protects civil liberties. In addition to digital tools, traditional methods of ground level response is needed during outbreaks.


Mains Question:
  1. Digital tools are not panacea to pandemic response. Critically analyse? [15 marks, 250 words]


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