The Centre is using powers under the Indian Telegraph Act to “fetch information” from telecom companies every 15 minutes to track COVID-19 cases across the country.
The government has tested an application that triggers e-mails and SMS alerts to an authorised government agency if a person has jumped quarantine or escaped from isolation, based on the person’s mobile phone’s cell tower location. The “geo-fencing” is accurate by up to 300 m, a government communication said.
Used by Kerala
Kerala was one of the first States to use geo-fencing to track COVID-19 cases.
On March 29, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) shared a standard operating procedure (SOP) with all telecom service providers regarding the application called COVID-19 Quarantine Alert System (CQAS).
The system will collate phone data, including the device’s location, on a common secured platform and alert the local agencies in case of a violation by COVID patients under watch or in isolation.
The SOP says that the DoT and C-DOT, in coordination with telecom service providers, have developed and tested the application. It said the location information is received periodically over a secure network for the authorised cases with “due protection of the data received”.
The States have been asked to seek the approval of their Home Secretaries under the provisions of Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, for the specified mobile phone numbers to request the DoT to provide information by email or SMS in case of violation of “geo-fencing”.
The particular provision under the Act, amended multiple times since 1885, authorises State or Centre to access information of a user’s phone data in case of “occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of the public safety.”
The CQAS will prepare a list of mobile numbers, segregating them on the basis of telecom service providers, and the location data provided by the companies will be run on the application to create geo-fencing, the SOP said.
Data will be deleted
It said that the phone number should be deleted from the system after the period for which location monitoring is required is over and the data would be deleted four weeks from thereon.
“The data collected shall be used only for the purpose of Health Management in the context of COVID-19 and is strictly not for any other purposes. Any violation in this regard would attract penal provisions under the relevant laws,” the SOP said.
The SOP said that geo-fencing will only work if the quarantined person has a mobile phone from Airtel, Vodafone-Idea or Reliance Jio, as “BSNL/MTNL” do not support location based services. BSNL and MTNL are government owned.