Privacy Concerns as MoH Launches WhatsApp Service

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe when he held a consultative meeting on Covid-19 response with officials from the ministry, the Kenya Healthcare Federation and CEOs from the Kenya Association of Private Hospitals at Afya House on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe when he held a consultative meeting on Covid-19 response with officials from the ministry, the Kenya Healthcare Federation and CEOs from the Kenya Association of Private Hospitals at Afya House on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
The Ministry of Health on Monday, May 11, 2020, launched a WhatsApp bot service to aid in the fight against Covid-19 in the country.

A WhatsApp Bot is a chatbot or software program that enables a user to embark on conversational commerce and manage customer issues. It saves time as it answers questions in real-time.

Health CAS Rashid Aman while issuing the daily Covid-19 brief at Afya House on May 11, stated that the bot would provide more information to Kenyans seeking to educate themselves on Covid-19.

A file image of a woman using a phone.
A file image of a lady using a phone

“The number of the Whatsapp bot is 0110719719, which has an embedded simple diagnostic tool that provides information on the pandemic as requested,” CAS Aman stated.

A try out of the bot by established that the service required data on a person prior to information access.

“Good afternoon, welcome to our service. Please choose your preferred language (1. Kiswahili),  (2. English)” is the first question on the bot followed by request for your details for purposes of registration, starting with your full name and the county of residence, and constituency.

Once you have input those details you are registered to use the service where you can access three options; Self-diagnosis tools, Information on Covid-19, and Update your profile.

While commendable, it is the MoH’s decision to collect personal information from the users of this service that has raised eyebrows, since it is a precondition to accessing potentially life-saving information from the government.

Compared to a similar service by the World Health Organisation (WHO), questions have been raised on why the government’s service did not mirror WHO’s decision to allow anyone to interact with the bot without having to give their name and location details.

In the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of unregulated surveillance has cropped up, with governments across the world employing people’s private information in contact tracing of suspected cases.

On March 23, 2020, the New York Times reported that South Korean authorities embarked on the employ of surveillance camera footage, smartphone location data, and credit card activity, in tracing Covid-19 patients and establishing their contacts.

The publication further reported that in Lombardy, Italy, location data from mobile phones was being harnessed by the authorities and used to determine who was obeying the lockdown and the distance moved on a daily basis.

Israel’s internal security agency resorted to the use of a cache of phone location data in locating suspected Covid-19 cases. The technology was previously meant for counter-terrorism operations.

Governments have been in the race to stem the spread of Covid-19, and eventually bring an end to the pandemic. This has resulted in the use of private data from citizens in the fight against the virus. As a result, the questions of personal privacy and public safety have since emerged.

Amnesty International (AI) noted that governments were employing surveillance tech to monitor individuals and even entire populations.

“However, increased surveillance measures will be unlawful unless they can meet strict criteria. Governments must be able to show that measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, time-bound and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight.

“What this means in practice is that surveillance measures must be the least intrusive available to achieve the desired result. They must not do more harm than good,” AI argued in a statement published on April 3, 2020.

Screenshots showing how the Ministryof Health's WhatsApp bot works
Screenshots showing how the Ministry of Health’s WhatsApp bot works

To curb the spread of Covid-19 in the country, Kenya has resorted to several measures; partial lockdowns, cessation of movement, social distancing, face masks, deployment of security agencies to enforce the nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew.

In the course of the pandemic, the country has since experienced many challenges, including resistance to given directives by members of the public, and the much-publicised police brutality that has been associated with a number of deaths during the period.

With the recent incidents of Kenyans fleeing locked down areas, or from counties affected by the pandemic, the government has constantly issued a warning, while stepping up efforts to tame the menace.

On May 11, Migori county called upon the government to deploy the military to the Kenya-Tanzania border to prevent cross-border infections. This is after 7 truck drivers tested positive for the virus on May 11, after returning from Tanzania.

Speaking to Pwani FM on May 2, Mombasa governor Hassan Joho revealed that he had synchronised CCTV cameras at the Likoni channel with his phone to monitor movement.

Another incident that sparked an uproar, was on May 6, 2020, when five Covid-19 patients escaped Old Town Mombasa. Three were however arrested on May 7, with the fourth one being found dead. These incidents have amplified calls for the government to increase surveillance on Covid-19 hotspots.

Amnesty International warns that owing to the pandemic, governments may have been given surveillance powers that they may not want to give up when the pandemic ends.

The biggest question still remains if the government can strike balance between public safety, and personal privacy amid efforts to tame the pandemic.

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