In a shocking development related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a document containing the personal information of 722 residents of New Delhi, including phone numbers, full address, and passport number, have been circulated on WhatsApp.
This serious violation of the fundamental Right to Privacy comes after a similar revelation in Bengaluru where the state’s Health Department itself had uploaded a list of 15,000 individuals, with their address and phone number, on Twitter.
The list of south Delhi residents, which also includes minors, pertains to passengers who have arrived at Delhi’s international airport from coronavirus-affected countries between 9-20 March. It is not clear how this list, meant for government authorities, came to be publicly circulated.
Circulation of personal information on WhatsApp comes on the heels of reports of harassment of individuals arriving from abroad as well as of airline employees, quarantined homes being labelled, racist attacks on people from the Northeast and the public shaming in Lucknow of people who had participated in anti-CAA protests.
While Karnataka health officials said this was done to create awareness, health activists and legal experts who spoke with The Quint have warned of serious consequences of the same, such as physical harm, breeding stigma, discrimination and a breakdown of social relationships.
Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, said this incident should not be called a breach but rather a ‘proactive disclosure’ by the authorities, “one that puts people in grave risk with no legal safeguards.”
The list, comprising 13 columns of information, includes the following details:
- Date of birth
- Full residential address
- Passport number
- Mobile number
- Email ID
- Date of arrival
- Flight number
- Port of arrival
‘Shocking Violation of My Privacy’
The Quint spoke with several people whose names appear in the list to verify the authenticity of the document in circulation. The names of the individuals and the list are not being revealed to protect their privacy.
A resident of Maharani Bagh whose name features on the list told The Quint he is “shocked” at this development.
“I arrived in India this month and was screened as per procedure. This, however, is a shocking violation of my privacy,” he said. “I have got two calls already from friends who received this forward. I want to know where exactly and how this list leaked to the public,” he added.
It is important to note that this is not a list of individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus. This is a list of people who arrived in the country in March and were screened at the airport and are in self-isolation as per prescribed procedure.
A 55-year-old Delhi resident who arrived from Frankfurt, Germany, and appears on the list told The Quint that the list can be used to target individuals. “I was screened at the airport and was found to be fine and have not experienced any symptoms. This list can create a false impression that we are infected,” he said.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m in a hospital at the moment for the last one week and wasn’t aware that this is happening with my information (sic),” said a 20-year-old woman who is also in the list.
A Disturbing Spate of Privacy Violations
Circulation of a plaintext document of south Delhi residents is a part of a larger series of similar incidents that have occurred across India over last month. These incidents pertain not only to the COVID-19 emergency but also to nationwide protests against CAA-NRC.
On 6 March, Uttar Pradesh government had come under fire for its move to put up hoardings in Lucknow displaying the name, photograph and even the address of over 50 people accused by it of partaking in anti-CAA protests in the city during which violence erupted.
Speaking to The Quint on 8 March, SR Darapuri, Sadaf Jafar and Deepak Kabir, all of whom feature on the hoardings, strongly criticised the move by the government, arguing that putting up hoardings with their name and address was not only illegal, but also put their lives in danger.
On 21 March, a local Hindi newspaper in Ajmer, Rajasthan, carried a report on 46 individuals who had been quarantined by the state’s Health Department. Not only did the paper mention the names of local residents who had recently returned from a trip abroad, it even published their address.
A few days later, on 25 March, a 40-year-old man, identified as Gaurav Vohra, was arrested for allegedly calling a woman from Manipur ‘coronavirus’ after spitting paan on her face in northwest Delhi's Mukherjee Nagar, the police said.
In a major faux pas, purportedly for the benefit of the people to “find who in their apartment or neighbourhood is in home quarantine” the Karnataka Health Department, on 25 March, released the exact addresses with house numbers, street names, ports of entry and exit, date of journey and a few other details online.
Experts Warn of Stigma, Discrimination
According to Chhaya Pachouli, a Jaipur-based activist, such naming and shaming can have far-reaching repercussions in a country like India. She is among the signatories in a letter submitted to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, telling him about consequences of making patient details public.
“This approach, rather than doing much good, would only breed wider stigma, discrimination, shame and fear among people which would deter them even more from coming out openly about their illnesses, travel and exposure history,” Pachouli told The Quint.
IFF’s Apar Gupta said the pandemic and the fear surrounding it has already put people under suspicion and may even lead to violence if not contained.
“This is a complete violation of the Right to Privacy of individuals. But also, this disclosure of personal information is of an Orwellian nature where we are now suspicious of each other rather than fighting the pandemic together,” Gupta told The Quint.
“There are already examples of resident associations mistreating people from abroad, medical workers and this could result in a breakdown of social relationships. The harms are already evident,” he added.
According to Gupta, the only way to contain the spread of this information can be done by the government if it issues an advisory and assure it will not share information of this nature as well.