BBMP health survey raises data privacy concerns

BBMP health survey raises data privacy concerns

A team led by a doctor is visiting households across Bengaluru and collecting Covid-related information

Health workers surveying homes at Chamarajpet in Bengaluru. BBMP teams have visited 88,000-plus households since last week.

The BBMP’s door-to-door health survey, launched last Monday, has given rise to privacy concerns.

Of the 88,000-plus households surveyed so far, a few have refused to participate, unsure how their personal information might be used and stored.

D Randeep, special commissioner (health), BBMP, says, “They want to know where this data will reside, and whether their mobile number will be given away and they will get (unsolicited) calls. In one instance, a woman objected to the ‘Who is the head of the family?’ question, saying there can be two heads.... We have made note of that suggestion.”

People who don’t want to share their phone number and details of the head of the family are the ones opting out of the survey, confirms BBMP’s chief health officer Dr B K Vijendra, adding that Bengalureans have been reluctant to take surveys in the past too.

“Some also fear they could be subjected to the RT-PCR test if they reveal they have Covid symptoms,” he says.

Randeep assures citizens there is nothing to fear — “The data will reside with the BBMP, for internal use”.

“A health database will help us control Covid in the short-term and non-communicable diseases in the long-run,” Dr Vijendra says.

The two-month exercise costs the civic body upwards of Rs 1 crore. The survey has helped identify 12 undiagnosed cases of Covid already, says Dr Vijendra.

‘Transparency is key’

Coming closer on the heels of the Pegasus controversy, where the Indian government was accused of spying on its citizenry, a state-sponsored survey can be difficult to trust. So transparency is key, observes Pranav M B, communication lead at The Centre for Internet and Society.

“The state government should let the public know they are taking full responsibility for the data collected and ensure there is no misuse,” he says.

Dhawal Mane, a project manager, would like that commitment. “Once I had booked a whole body test through an app and shared my phone number. Since then, I‘ve been getting personalised messages like ‘Your Vitamin B12 is low. Take a test’. That’s creepy,” he says.

Not only this, Mane, who stays in an independent house near Koramangala, isn’t sure if he would have time for the BBMP team if they show up at his door unannounced. “Shouldn’t they schedule it?” he wonders.

TB prevalence

Medical professionals like Dr C Nagaraj, director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases, say the survey can help in identifying diseases like tuberculosis, the symptoms of which are similar to Covid-19. The detection of tuberculosis has, in fact, increased by 20 per cent in the city since the pandemic.

“It is also easier to educate people face-to-face than through banners or telephonic calls,” he says.

A team — led by a doctor — first explains what the initiative is about and takes queries. Called Palike Vaidyaru Nimma Mane Bagilige, the campaign is touted as a first-of-its-kind health survey in India.

What’s the survey about?

Its objective is to identify people with Covid-like symptoms, record vaccination status and increase coverage, and assess the prevalence of comorbidities and submit an action plan to the national Non-Communicable Disease Control Programme.

What will they ask you?

Besides medical details, they will also collect your name, age, phone number, and address.

What will happen if you decline the survey?

The field team will come back to your house in a week or two to counsel you. They will also return to houses that were locked or unavailable during the first visit. “It’s a voluntary survey. We can’t pressure anybody to participate,” Dr Vijendra says.

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