Opinions Tue, 27 Oct 2020

COVID-19 data collection at Ghana’s KIA: Privacy concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a “spanner into the works” relative to air transport for the better part of 2020 thanks to mass closure of airspaces and shutting of most airports to passenger traffic.

Reopening has since been in full gear and with that a flurry of movements via air travel. Amid the pandemic, evacuations were done via air. In the case of most countries, air borders were reopened at a time that land borders remained shut – case in point is Ghana.

With the reopening has come a ‘load’ in data collection by travellers moving from one point to the other. But as digital rights activists have increasingly noted, with increased data collection; there is the need to make data privacy demands from authorities.

Freedom on the net 2020 report: COVID inspired privacy concerns

According to the (Link 1) Freedom On The Net 2020 report by Freedom House: “The public health crisis has created an opening for digitization, collection, and analysis of people’s most intimate data without adequate protections against abuses.”

It noted that such activities fed into expanded surveillance powers by the state which they used to justify the deployment of new technologies known to be intrusive. The report also echoed the instance of lack of transparency, independent oversight and avenues for redress.

Ghana reopens border: Mandatory tests and data entry

In President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s (Link 2)18th COVID-19 address – on October 18, 2020, he disclosed that since September 1 when the country’s main airport, the Kotoka International Airport “was reopened … a total of thirty thousand, five hundred and sixty-four (30,564) passengers have been tested, from which ninety-two (92) have tested positive.

By implication, over 30,000 people have had their bio and health details collected by the authorities at the KIA, the question that authorities have yet to address is what privacy safeguards exist and which outfit was in charge of the data storage and analysis.

Authorities at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport demand the usual immigration forms be filled whiles arriving with an extra COVID-19 form. Upon arrival, however, there is a change of process as the physical form is discarded for a digital process.

The ‘surprise’ digital data collection point

The central data collection point being via a Ministry of Health iPad stationed at the airport. That data is tied to the mandatory COVID-19 test required for every traveller entering the country as per government guidelines.

Passengers are requested to submit their biodata, recent travel history and other medical observations. When “data successfully saved,” another official confirms the entry on a separate iPad before a person pays to take their test.

The privacy concerns stem from a process that was not explained to passengers prior. One arrives with a filled out form but is “forced” to go a digital route.

There are zero explanations and or assurances from officials manning the data collection desks relative to safety and security of collected data.

In Congo – the writer’s point of departure, travellers needed to produce valid / negative test outcome before boarding – a requirement enforced by the airlines, many of whom were strict with the regulation for fear of attracting penalties from destination countries.

Ethiopian authorities demanded the submission of biodata and some travel history in a paper form that all passengers were mandated to complete before arrival in Addis Ababa. This applied passengers in transit or otherwise. Incidentally, the form was not at any point demanded be it on arrival or departure.

Under COVID-19 pretext, governments around the world especially in Africa are collecting tonnes of data from travellers. Knowing that such data could be subject to misuse and abuse, the call for policy changes to protect data cannot be underestimated.

This writer travelled between three countries – from Republic of Congo (Pointe Noire), through Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and arrived in Accra, Ghana – in two days. The above are his experiences relative to COVID-19 related data collection by aviation authorities.

Abdur Rahman Shaban Alfa is a freelance digital journalist and 2020 Paradigm Initiative Digital Rights and Inclusion fellow. He can be reached at alfashabanalfa@gmail.com.

Link 1. 2020 Freedom On The Net Report: https://t.co/IUyLHlaQx3?amp=1

Link 2. Ghana president 18th COVID-19 briefing: http://www.presidency.gov.gh/index.php/briefing-room/speeches/1756-update-no-18-measures-taken-to-combat-spread-of-coronavirus
Columnist: Abdur Rahman Shaban Alfa