Inter-Services Intelligence using surveillance technology used to locate militants to track suspected coronavirus cases
Authorities in Pakistan are listening in on calls of COVID-19 patients to monitor if their contacts are also talking about having symptoms of the virus, according to a report published by news agency AFP on Thursday.
As part of a program backed by Prime Minister Imran Khan—with the Economic Coordination Committee in May approving a grant of Rs. 1.66 billion to “upgrade” the Inter-Services Intelligence’s Special Telecom Monitoring Project—the country’s intelligence services are reportedly deploying technology normally used to track militants to monitor coronavirus patients and the people they come into contact with.
Last month, during a telethon to attract funds for the P.M.’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, Khan claimed the “track and trace” system would allow the country to end lockdowns and reopen businesses. “The ISI has given us a great system for track and trace,” he said. “It was originally used against terrorism, but now it is has come in useful against coronavirus.”
While the government has not released any details about the project—in line with its secretive policies on all matters related to the ISI—AFP has cited two senior officials as claiming both geo-fencing and phone-monitoring systems are being utilized in the fight against COVID-19.
Most critically, and worryingly for rights activists, authorities are also spying on the calls of COVID-19 patients to monitor whether their contacts are talking about having symptoms.
According to civil rights campaigners, authorities that are often accused of holding a vast sway over many aspects of the country’s cultural and political life, could potentially abuse sweeping surveillance powers to target political dissidents.
Former senator Afrasiab Khattak of the Awami National Party told AFP that involving the ISI would spread unnecessary fear about the disease. “The task of tracking and tracing the patients and suspected cases should be dealt with by provincial governments and local communities—let intelligence agencies do their actual job,” he told the news agency.
But intelligence officials claim that the trace-and-track of suspected coronavirus patients was necessary due to people with symptoms avoiding treatment.
“The government has been successful in tracing even those who tested positive but went into hiding,” one security official told AFP.
A lack of awareness, mixed messaging from the government, stigma of the disease, and fear of being isolated away from loved ones has been attributed to some people in Pakistan fleeing hospitals or hiding their symptoms. The worrying situation continues to spiral, as the country eases lockdowns despite healthcare professionals warning that it has yet to achieve its peak.
As of May 28, 61,227 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded across Pakistan, with 1,260 deaths and 20,231 recoveries. There are currently 39,736 active cases in the country, though officials have warned that the true numbers are likely much higher due to limited testing.
Similar to Pakistan, Israel’s intelligence services have also been using counter-terrorism technology, including tracking mobile phones, to monitor COVID-19 patients, says AFP. That measure has prompted the country’s Supreme Court to raise privacy concerns.