We will not spy on you, government promises South Africans

02 April 2020 - 20:47 By ANDISIWE MAKINANA
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Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Image: Eugene Coetzee

Government has sought to assure South Africans that it will not spy or intercept their cellphone conversations in the process of tracing the movements of people who have made contact with someone who has contracted Covid-19.

It will also appoint a retired judge to ensure the safeguarding of citizens' private information and that the information is only used for Covid-19-related purposes.

“I know most people have been concerned that government wants to spy on them. This is not spying on anyone,” said communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on Thursday evening.

“We are under a situation where we have declared a state of disaster management and we are in a lockdown. It is in our interest as South Africans to minimise the spread of a virus. That means we have a responsibility to look at any environment that can help us minimise the spread of a virus and among those is what we call contact tracing,” she added.

Ndabeni-Abrahams explained: “And when we say we are going to use cellphone numbers, it doesn’t mean we take anybody's number. It is those that go and test and are found to be positive.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams said as the patients fill in their information, it is then that the department of health will seek permission from the electronic communications network service licensees to say “we have these people that have tested positive, can you therefore give us access to the geolocation?”

She said this would be done by the department of health because they are the ones keeping the database of the people who have tested.

“We do respect the fact that everyone has a right to privacy but in a situation like this, our individual rights do not supersede the country's rights. The most important and critical right is ensuring safety for South Africans so that the spread does not continue,” she added.

Justice and constitutional development's Ronald Lamola explained that the director-general of the department of health will produce a weekly report to the designated judge who is going to will ensure the information is used specifically for what the regulations provide the information to be used for.

“I assure the nation this is not spying. The government wants to ensure this is also safeguarded ...” he said.

The government gazetted new regulations on Thursday providing for cellphone companies to provide to the government the location and movement of anyone known or reasonably suspected to have contracted Covid-19 to the government.

The utilisation of cellphone location data to track and trace people across SA comes as the department of health ramps up its efforts to trace anyone suspected to have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19.

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