Multiple press reports have emerged on "lists" of persons placed under quarantine who are suspected to be infected with Covid-19. Many of these lists have been circulated on social media and WhatsApp groups, primarily those formed by Resident Welfare Associations and Group Housing Societies. The circulation of this information is a breach of personal privacy and is exposing such quarantines to second order harms. To address it we have urged the Ministry of Health; Ministry of Urban Development and Housing; and the National Real Estate Development Council (NARDECO) to urgently issue advisories.
Time to stop, spy the neighbour!
It is day 6 of a national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Repeated calls are being made public officials to maintain social solidarity and offer support. This spirit of social cooperation is jarring to the indiscriminate sharing of lists of persons who are suffering from Covid-19 infection; or, are suspected of being carriers; or, fall within a risk category due to recent travel. These lists of persons are being principally shared through digital means. This increases the field of dissemination of personally identifiable information and can lead to acute harm.
Several press reports have emerged that such lists are being circulated on social media and WhatsApp groups, principally those formed by Resident Welfare Associations and Group Housing Societies. Further compounding this problem is that many of these lists seem to have been compiled by departments in State Governments and published on websites or, "leaked".
These lists are not uniform and while may not contain the name of the person do contain personally identifiable information such as the addresses and the relatives of such persons. It is enabling discrimination, denial of essential health care and food items and even leading to instances where persons placed under quarantine are being placed under pressure of eviction by landlords and apartment societies.
"Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye"
Spurred by increasing press reports we have taken action by writing representations to the Ministry of Health; Ministry of Urban Housing; and the National Real Estate Development Council to issue urgent advisories against the sharing of such lists. We placed reliance on specific provisions of law including the Supreme Court's 9 judge bench privacy judgement, provisions of Indian Medical Council Regulations and the Information Technology Act. Here much of our thought has been shaped by the leadership of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan that has written a representation on March 23, 2020.
Beyond a breach of law, is a poor public policy choice at the time of a pandemic. Sharing of information weakens social solidarity that is needed to counter this shared and unprecedented social challenge. It is literally turning neighbour against neighbour.
We believe that state responses can be crafted while protecting the fundamental right to privacy as guaranteed under the Constitution. In our constitutional framework, one of the core values to advance the aims of social justice is of, fraternity. This value in ambedkarite thought has been explained by Shiveshwar Kundu as, "[c]entral to this idea of fraternity is the notion of friendship." By releasing such lists containing personally identifiable information, this notion of social collegiality is replaced by private vigilantism. It undermines the founding ethos of our republic is beautifuly contained in Narsi Mehta’s poem Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye that was often sung as a hym by Gandhi jee as a call for practiced empathy.
Continued actions on protecting digital rights in times of Covid-19
IFF intends to do more. As next steps we commit to writing directly to the Chief Ministers and the Health Departments of specific state governments. Through the week we will also be articulating a nuanced position on contact tracing as being offered by several smartphone applications and its impact on personal privacy.
We are attempting our best to safegaurd your digital liberties as emergency measures are implemented due to Covid-19. These include support for internet access without compromising net neutrality; preventing internet shutdowns that can compound health risks; and continuing our work against illegal surveillance drones which are likely to be used in heavy handed ways against people who are scrabling to arrange essential commodities and rations for daily living.
If you think we can do more, or focus on any specific concern related to digital rights, as always please do reach out to us. We try to respond to every email and have even created a public forum (link in the footer) where you can have sustained conversations with IFF staff.
- Representation dated March 30, 2020 to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (link)
- Representation dated March 30, 2020 to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (link)
- Representation dated March 30, 2020 to the National Real Estate Development Council (link)
Become an IFF member and we assure you we will work hard to protect your digital rights in times of Covid-19. If you want to engage with the IFF staff and community join the Internet Freedom Forum!