Challenges in Contact Tracing by Mining Mobile Phone Location Data for COVID-19: Implications for Public Governance in South Africa

Paul Kariuki, Lizzy O Ofusori, Prabhakar Rontala Subramanniam, Moses Okpeku, Maria L Goyayi
Interdisciplinary Journal of Information, Knowledge, and Management  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 101-124

The paper’s objective is to examine the challenges of using the mobile phone to mine location data for effective contact tracing of symptomatic, pre-symptomatic, and asymptomatic individuals and the implications of this technology for public health governance.

The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented need for contact tracing across South Africa, requiring thousands of people to be traced and their details captured in government health databases as part of public health efforts aimed at breaking the chains of transmission. Contact tracing for COVID-19 requires the identification of persons who may have been exposed to the virus and following them up daily for 14 days from the last point of exposure. Mining mobile phone location data can play a critical role in locating people from the time they were identified as contacts to the time they access medical assistance. In this case, it aids data flow to various databases designated for COVID-19 work.

The researchers conducted a review of the available literature on this subject drawing from academic articles published in peer-reviewed journals, research reports, and other relevant national and international government documents reporting on public health and COVID-19. Document analysis was used as the primary research method, drawing on the case studies.

Contact tracing remains a critical strategy in curbing the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. However, given increasing concern regarding its invasive nature and possible infringement of individual liberties, it is imperative to interrogate the challenges related to its implementation to ensure a balance with public governance. The research findings can thus be used to inform policies and practices associated with contact tracing in South Africa.

The study found that contact tracing using mobile phone location data mining can be used to enforce quarantine measures such as lockdowns aimed at mitigating a public health emergency such as COVID-19. However, the use of technology can expose the public to criminal activities by exposing their locations. From a public governance point of view, any exposure of the public to social ills is highly undesirable.

In using contact tracing apps to provide pertinent data location caution needs to be exercised to ensure that sensitive private information is not made public to the extent that it compromises citizens’ safety and security. The study recommends the development and implementation of data use protocols to support the use of this technology, in order to mitigate against infringement of individual privacy and other civil liberties.

Researchers should explore ways of improving digital applications in order to improve the acceptability of the use of contact tracing technology to manage pandemics such as COVID-19, paying attention to ethical considerations.

Since contact tracing has implications for privacy and confidentiality it must be conducted with caution. This research highlights the challenges that the authorities must address to ensure that the right to privacy and confidentiality is upheld.

Future research could focus on collecting primary data to provide insight on contact tracing through mining mobile phone location data. Research could also be conducted on how app-based technology can enhance the effectiveness of contact tracing in order to optimize testing and tracing coverage. This has the potential to minimize transmission whilst also minimizing tracing delays. Moreover, it is important to develop contact tracing apps that are universally inter-operable and privacy-preserving.

COVID-19, contact tracing, public governance, South Africa
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