Broadcast Engineering Consultants Limited, a government of India undertaking under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting had recently released a tender inviting “Expression of Interest (EOI) for Empanelment of Agency for Supply of Healthcare Equipments”. The tender invites EOI for agencies to be empaneled to supply various ‘healthcare items’. To this tender a corrigendum was released adding three more items to be supplied: (1) Hand Held Thermal Imaging System (2) Optical Thermal Fever Sensing System (3) COVID – 19 Patient Tracking Tool.
Reading through the specifications of the tracking tool, it is evident that the item, presumably a comprehensive software, goes beyond a healthcare tool and opens up the possibility of mass surveillance.
The first specification for the equipment brands the equipment as an “Intelligence investigation platform & tactical tool to detect, prevent and investigate threats to national security using CDR, IPDR, Tower, Mobile Phone Forensics Data.”
The use of the phrase “national security” points to the possibility of the Government using this equipment to turn on an ‘always-active’ regime of surveillance in the guise of managing a pandemic.
The specification also mandates that it “should allow user to import data extracted from Mobile Forensic Tools like CellebriteUFED, Micro-Systemation XRY and HANCOM GMD”. It is also provided that the tool should be compatible with the i2 Analyst Notebook for advanced link Analysis. Cellebrite UFED (Universal Forensic Extraction Device), Micro-Systemation XRY and HANCOM GMD are linked to mobile forensics. It is not clear as to why a patient tracking tool should have such forensic capabilities. The use of CDR, tower data, and geo-location also indicates that chances are high that the entire system will be connected with already existing systems such as CMS and NATGRID. The tool with analysis of cell tower dumps and gateway scans and CDR records has the potential to be used as a mass surveillance tool.
SFLC.IN considers this move by the government to use technology to build a system that has the potential to be used for mass surveillance to be dangerous as we do not have sufficient safeguards against mass surveillance. Although the use of technology will be required for contact tracing, this has to be done in conjunction with conventional methods of tracking and the pandemic should not be an excuse to introduce a blanket system of surveillance. Many components of the tool included in the tender document go beyond the common requirements of contact tracing and could result in pervasive surveillance. SFLC.in along with other organisations and individuals had earlier sent a joint letter to the Central Government and various state governments requesting that any technology measures taken during the pandemic phase should respect the privacy of citizens and should be time -limited and in tune with the principles of necessity and proportionality.