The Karnataka government's move to make addresses of those under home quarantine public on Tuesday evening has raised concerns among citizens, who say this is a serious breach of privacy that could have serious social implications. This move comes at a time when videos are being shared of airline crew being ostracised by their housing societies for flying in COVID-19 affected zones in their line of duty.
Within minutes of the Karnataka government's tweet, excel and pdf files containing details of home addresses, date of arrival, transit of over 14,000 residents from Bengaluru alone who had returned from abroad in recent weeks, was downloaded and circulated widely on WhatsApp groups. The state government has still kept these details active on the web, suggesting that the move to share personal details was a deliberate one.
A few building societies said the list was already causing chaos, with residents seeking details of who is in home quarantine. But some believe this was a necessary move, as many people who had returned from abroad were found to be violating home quarantine or failed to disclose their travel history.
Those who are walking around when they should be quarantining are criminals. It's because of them that everyone is under lockdown.— Simply Me (@Simblee) March 25, 2020
To be sure, the Karnataka government has already hand-stamped and served notices to every resident under quarantine. Was it necessary then to publish sensitive information in the public domain, ask critics. More importantly, does it have legal ground?
Justice Srikrishna, who helped draft India's data protection Bill, told Chandra R Srikanth of ET NOW that this was a fallout of India not having a data protection law in place. But, even under the privacy law, there are exemptions for extraordinary circumstances, where the government can invoke public safety and order to make these details public.
Just spoke to Justice Srikrishna, who drafted the data protection bill. His view:— Chandra R. Srikanth (@chandrarsrikant) March 25, 2020
1. Fallout of not having privacy law.
2. Even under privacy law, there are exemptions for extraordinary circumstances like these. Govt can invoke public safety/health/order to get away with this. https://t.co/s9WStIfis6
The data protection Bill, which has a framework for personal data protection, was introduced in Parliament in December 2019. While the Bill gives citizens control over their personal data, the government can invoke provisions such as national security and other emergencies to exempt agencies from the Bill's purview .
Some legal experts however disagreed with the Karnataka government's move. “At a bare minimum, the state should tell us under what statute they have this power. Even if there is a statutory sanction to it, the exercise now is to be justified on the anvil of necessity. The state ought to show how quarantine stickers or locality level lists are not sufficient to achieve the same objectives, and why it is necessary to publish a state-wide list," said Prasanna S, a practising lawyer based in New Delhi.
Suhrith Parthasarathy, an advocate practicing at the Madras High Court said, "When you disclose the personal information of any person, on the face of it, it is a violation of privacy. Perhaps this might be defensible under the Epidemic Act, but the government will have to tailor such disclosures narrowly. Or it will have to at least pass a specific Ordinance for this purpose. Whatever the legal regime though, the disclosure needs to meet the proportionality test."
Legal remedies for affected residents appear limited at this juncture. "They can go to the High Court to file a writ petition once this crisis is over, or file a police complaint. A data protection law would have also helped streamline the whole process, from securing consent to publish information to the extent of time they can maintain all of this in the public domain,” Suhrith said.
While the government may be within its rights to publish details, this may defeat the purpose of keeping names of COVID-19 patients anonymous to protect their privacy, and might endanger those following a quarantine, especially at a time when there is panic and fear of the unknown.
It also raises questions on empathy, as this might lead to more social stigma, at a time when the nation is under lockdown and procuring essentials is becoming difficult.
Kerala, that has more than 100 cases, has been firm about protecting the details of those in quarantine. PB Nooh, the District Collector of Pathanamthitta, tweeted recently about the need to safeguard the privacy of patients undergoing treatment as well as those under self- quarantine.
Meanwhile, Pathanamthitta Collector says.... pic.twitter.com/qCSH3rC4SW— Dhanya Rajendran (@dhanyarajendran) March 25, 2020