Nowhere to hide: How State is tracking down virus rebels

Wednesday May 13 2020

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe holds a daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, at Afya House, Nairobi, on April 4, 2020. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The mobile phone is at the centre of government surveillance efforts to track down suspected coronavirus patients and their contacts, and Kenyans should expect to lose more of their privacies in coming days as officials ramp up efforts to fight the deadly virus.

A senior State official, speaking to the Sunday Nation on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that mobile phone tracking starts immediately one is identified as a potential coronavirus risk and continues throughout until one is given an all-clear.

The Sunday Nation has also established that a special team drawn from various security agencies and working in collaboration with the ministries of Health and Interior is aiding coordination efforts from a military installation in the outskirts of Nairobi.

The coronavirus Tracker

Most of those who have been tracked using their mobile phones are travellers who arrived in the country in the last month through major airports.

Once they arrived, they were required to sign forms before being allowed entry into the country.


The forms, among others, gave security agencies the authority to trace and track their phones.


Mobile phone companies are aiding the triangulation of contacts once a suspected infection has been identified.

The triangulation includes the people the suspected infections have talked to on phone, who are then whittled down using cellular mast networks to those who might have come into close proximity.

This has raised invasion of privacy fears and questions about data security, but State actors say the virus presents a far bigger risk and should be fought by all means.

Both the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) did not respond to our queries on the surveillance tools deployed in efforts to contain the virus.

What we know, however, is that at least five suspected individuals who hid from the authorities after being suspected to have been infected with the virus were tracked down and forcefully taken into quarantine, Ministry of Health officials, who also requested not to be named, said.

One of the individuals, who has since recovered, was tracked down by detectives who are operating the control centre.

The patient, who has dual citizenship, led the police in a frantic chase before they sought help from intelligence personnel, who tracked her down to a hotel in Nairobi.

She was then taken to the Infectious Diseases Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital, where she was tested.

“She arrived in the country on the same flight from London as the first patient but ignored calls by Ministry of Health officials to go for testing. She lied about her locations and refused to answer calls,” said the source.


After she was found, health officials looked for everyone she was in contact with and then taken to the Infectious Diseases Unit, located at Mbagathi Hospital.

Another woman escaped from a quarantine facility in Nairobi and fled to Nakuru, where she was traced using the technology and put under forced isolation in a hotel.

The 27-year-old South African committed suicide days later inside her room at the Kenya Industrial Training Institute, officials said.

She had complained that she had been quarantined in deplorable conditions and had requested to be moved to a better facility.

Kenya is deploying similar technology as that used in various countries, among them Israel, Singapore, South Korea and China, to track the coronavirus outbreak.

In China, the government installed CCTV cameras on the doors of those under a 14-day quarantine to ensure they do not leave and deployed drones telling people to wear masks.

In Singapore, the government rolled out an app, called TraceTogether, that uses Bluetooth signals between mobile phones to see if potential carriers of the virus have been in close contact with other people.

And to monitor the movement of those quarantined, some of the residents in Hong Kong have been made to wear a wristband that links to a smartphone app, sending real-time location to the authorities; while in South Korea the government is using credit card transactions, smartphone location data and CCTV video to create a system for tracking coronavirus infections.

These are some of the few countries that got serious about mass testing early on.


They used the information to do ambitious contact tracing — finding and testing those who had recently been near infected people, even if they had no symptoms.

That provided a pretty full picture of the outbreak while the numbers were still manageable, and made it possible to slow it down.

Though it did not act on the same scale as those countries, Germany did more testing and contact tracing in the early going than most of Europe.

But most nations with large numbers of cases have done less testing, waited longer to do it in bulk, and made little attempt at contact tracing.

They find themselves playing catch-up with the virus, ramping up testing after their outbreaks had already mushroomed.

They detect more cases, but by then it’s hard to tell how much of that growth is the expanding epidemic and how much is expanding surveillance.

Unable to meet the demand, they often limit testing to the sickest patients and health workers.

Health officials are describing individuals who flout measures from the government or fail to follow advice from medical experts, such as the need to self-isolate or practice physical distancing, as virus rebels.

So far, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe says, the government has identified a number of virus rebels who will be charged in court for flouting measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.


Other than the woman who has since recovered, Kilifi Deputy Governor Gideon Saburi and a Rome-based Catholic priest are among those being described as virus rebels.

Mr Saburi was arrested on Friday soon after being released from Coast General Hospital.

He is accused of not isolating himself upon arrival from Germany on March 7, risking the spread of coronavirus to several people who came into contact with him, including Kilifi County Executive Committee members, Chief Administrative Secretary for Lands Gideon Mung’aro, Kilifi Woman Representative Gertrude Mbeyu, Rabai MP William Kamoti, and two senior officers from Mtwapa Police Station.

Kenya, however, is not alone in this technology-versus-privacy quandary, and for most countries the biggest question has been whether this can this be done without intrusive surveillance and access to personal devices that store a wealth of private information.

Firms can “anonymise” location data received from one’s smartphone by stripping out personal identifiers.

The data can then be presented in an “aggregate” form where individual and identifiable data points are not accessible.

Your location data is already likely being used that way by mobile operators to feed traffic information to map apps.


And it is such information that the European Commission has requested from mobile operators, which can determine the location of users by measuring the phone signal strength from more than one network tower.

In fact, mobile operators have already been providing such data to health researchers in France and Germany.

Google, which collects large amounts of data from users of its myriad services, plans to publish information about the movement of people to allow governments gauge the effectiveness of social distancing.

In particular, it will display percentage point increases and decreases in visits to such locations as parks, shops and workplaces.

Additional reporting by AFP and the New York Times.