Civil society and concerned citizens urge the Federal and Provincial Government(s) of Pakistan to limit the usage of digital surveillance measures during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic

Illustration by Aniqa Haider for Digital Rights Monitor

April 9, 2020 — Media Matters for Democracy, along with concerned organisations and individuals, signed a joint statement to draw authorities’ attention towards the need to uphold the right to privacy as they resort to technological assistance to contain the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan. The statement can be accessed here.

The statement highlights the impact that blanket surveillance and collection of citizens’ data will have on the future of the country once the pandemic is over. “The undersigned urge the government of Pakistan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that does not involve the usage of far-reaching digital technologies to track and monitor individuals, and instead use tech-based solutions in line with human rights principles.” It adds, “The spread of this virus is leading to not only an over-reliance on authoritarian measures, but also demonstrating a disregard towards people’s right to privacy, by governments across the world.”

As governments are adopting tech-based solutions to contain the spread of the virus, a glaring indifference towards people’s right to privacy has become evident which will have a lasting impact on the way this right is conceptualised, protected, and respected by individuals, authorities and government policies. Since Pakistan still does not have a data protection law in place that would unconditionally protect people’s data and their privacy, each set of data that is collected poses the potential threat of misuse or leaking of the personal information of citizens. We have already seen instances in the past where sensitive government data from databases such as NADRA has been leaked.

The statement demands that the government must prioritise enacting a robust national data protection law in order to protect the right to privacy of all Pakistani citizens. In its six-point demands, the statement emphasises that given the sensitive nature of this information, the government must ensure that the collection of data is time-bound, in that it is only collected and stored during this healthcare emergency. Once it ceases to be an emergency, this collection of data and tracking of individual data must immediately stop along with the collected data and its copies deleted in all forms.

Furthermore, it also stresses the need to limit the scope of the surveillance of ordinary citizens. “This is not an issue that requires measures stemming from a ‘national security’ approach. Hence, the government must ensure that any surveillance that it is resorting to while fighting coronavirus remains limited in its scope. Strict guidelines should be placed under the initiatives the government is embarking on at this time,” adding, “the government should not rely on encouraging ordinary citizens recruited under its initiatives to track and report other ordinary citizens. The government must refrain from militarising a health emergency by creating so-called forces and asking citizens to surveil other people around them. This mindset perpetuates a mob mentality that will have disastrous consequences in the long run.”

The statement, signed by civil society organisations, journalists, activists, academics, lawyers, and concerned citizens, outlines the importance of maintaining and upholding privacy of the patients as they deal with a disease that takes physical and psychological toll. It states that Pakistani citizens should not be asked to choose between the two fundamental rights, that is, right to privacy and right to healthcare. The two, instead, should go hand in hand, and the authorities should ensure the availability of these rights for everyone without discrimination. And in doing so, their personal information should remain protected as the government deals with the growing threat of the spread of a virus currently crippling the entire nation.

It’s imperative to state that invasion of privacy affects everyone but goes on to impact marginalised communities multifold, and the signatories demand that protection and healthcare relief should be provided to everyone regardless of their gender identity, age, religion, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and nationality status.

In the end, the statement emphasises that the government must ensure transparency in all its decisions and actions involving the use of technology, particularly in regards to obtaining citizens’ electronic and biometric data. It states, “In events where data and sets of data are breached, the government must ensure that this issue is duly and immediately communicated to the public, while also making sure that accountability is maintained at all times.”

The realisation and application of technology’s role to mitigate risks posed by a global pandemic by authorities is indeed commendable. However, at a time when privacy should have been respected as an inalienable right of every citizen of Pakistan, a healthcare emergency is posing a considerable threat to this right. The steps that the authorities will take now are believed to become a norm once the healthcare emergency is over. The signatories of the statement hope that the damage to the right to privacy of citizens is not normalised as a process, but is time-bound and limited in its scope to provide relief during this healthcare emergency.

Hija is the Senior Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She leads digital rights and internet governance advocacy at MMfD. Tweets at @hijakamran

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