Big problems with South Africa’s coronavirus phone tracking system: report

 ·26 Apr 2020

Nearly four weeks after it was first announced, government’s plan to use cellphone data to track the movement of people with the coronavirus is still not operational.

The Sunday Times reports that not a single person has been tracked using the technology, with experts indicating that South Africa’s cellphone triangulation may not be good enough for the task.

Cyanre Digital Forensic Lab’s Danny Myburgh said that this was a particular problem in the country’s rural areas, where base stations are kilometres apart.

Other experts have warned that South Africa simply does not have the capacity to interpret this data at a mass scale as required.

Government confirmed to the Sunday Times that it was still finalising the use of the technology.

“We are finalising the data linkages to receive the information, and this is not fully operational as yet,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

“We have been continuing with our current method of contact tracing until the IT system is fully functional.”


The tracking system was first announced at the start of the country’s lockdown in a set of regulations published by minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The regulations require network operators to provide location data to help the government track the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

“The industry collectively has agreed to provide data analytics services in order to help government,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said at the time.

“This was to help inform the Department of Health with estimates of how many people are infected in a particular area, and “to look at the individuals that are affected,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

Vodacom has told MyBroadband that its understanding of the minister’s data information request is for high-level aggregated data on how people are moving to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

“This does not include personal information or information that identifies a specific individual,” stated Vodacom.

“The aggregate information is to be able to see how the population is moving as a whole and does not include any personalised records or even individual records.”

This data would show how many people moved from one area to another over a relatively long period. However, even at the time, Vodacom warned that n area is quite a big geographical region – at best the footprint of a base station.

Read: These are the people that will be allowed to return to work from 1 May

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