Pakistan deploys militant-tracking technology to hunt coronavirus patients

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The intelligence services in Pakistan are deploying secretive surveillance technology normally used to locate militants to instead track coronavirus patients and the people they come into contact with, AFP reported.

According to the government has turned to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for help in tackling the virus, which still is spreading at an accelerating rate across Pakistan.

Details about the project have not been released, but two officials told AFP that intelligence services are using geo-fencing and phone-monitoring systems that ordinarily are employed to hunt high-value targets including homegrown and foreign militants.

Geo-fencing, a discreet tracking system that alerts authorities when someone leaves a specific geographic area, has helped officials monitor neighbourhoods on lockdown.

Authorities are also listening in to the calls of Covid-19 patients to monitor whether their contacts are talking about having symptoms.

“The trace-and-track system basically helps us track the mobile phones of corona patients as well as anyone they get in touch with before of after their disappearance,” an intelligence official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior security official told AFP that agencies are now “quite effectively” using the technology to track coronavirus cases.

“The government has been successful in tracing even those who tested positive but went into hiding,” the security official said.

Recently the country’s prime minister praised the programme, which has come up against little public debate or scrutiny over its use in the virus fight.

“It was originally used against terrorism, but now it is has come in useful against coronavirus,” he said.

More than 61,000 people in Pakistan have tested positive for the disease and more than 1,200 patients have died.

Rights groups worry authorities, that are accused of holding a vast sway over many aspects of the country’s cultural and political life, might abuse their sweeping surveillance powers to trace political dissidents.

Ex-senator Afrasiab Khattak told AFP that involving the ISI would spread unnecessary fear among the population.

“The task of tracking and tracing the patients and suspected cases should be dealt with by provincial governments and local communities — let intelligence agencies do their actual job,” he said.

Countries across the world have employed track-and-trace methods to control the virus’s spread, raising privacy concerns.

Israel’s intelligence services have been using counter-terrorism technology, including tracking mobile phones, prompting the Supreme Court to raise privacy concerns.

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