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Warning: COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps Could Be Turned Into Tools For Domestic Abuse

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If governments don’t focus on strong privacy protections in their COVID-19 contact tracking tools, it could exacerbate domestic abuse and endanger survivors, according to a warning from women’s support charities.

They’ve urged the U.K. government to include domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) experts in the development of such initiatives.

Though the U.K. doesn’t yet have a widely available track and trace app, the charities – including Women’s Aid and Refuge – are already anxious enough about the current tracing program, where infected people are called up and asked to register themselves online as someone who has contracted COVID-19. They’re then asked to share details on people with whom they’ve been in contact so they too can be informed.

In a joint whitepaper, the nonprofits said they were anxious about contact tracing staff inadvertently leaking contact details of survivors to perpetrators. They also raised fears the program could be turned into a “tool for abuse.” 

“For example, perpetrators may make fraudulent claims that they have been in contact with survivors in order for them to be asked to self-isolate unnecessarily, and in these circumstances survivors will have no means to identify the perpetrator as the original source,” they warned. “Perpetrators or associates may also pose as contact tracing staff and make contact with victims [or] survivors requesting they self-isolate or requesting personal information.”

The paper also claims abusers are already using the coronavirus pandemic for “coercive control,” in some cases deliberately breathing, spitting and coughing in survivors’ faces. As Forbes previously reported, the sharing of child abuse material has also spiked during global COVID-19 lockdowns.

As for apps, the report warned they required location services to be switched on. “While the NHS app itself doesn’t collect location data, if a perpetrator has installed spyware onto a survivor’s phone or is able to hack into it, then turning on location services will expose their location.”

Problems with Palantir?

The charities also raised concerns about a number of companies who’d partnered with the U.K. on the contact tracing initiatives. They said Serco, which is handling recruiting for contact tracing staff, “has a significant track record of failings and human rights violations, including running a controversial women’s immigration detention centre where staff have been accused of sexual misconduct and involvement in unlawful evictions of asylum seekers.” Serco also recently had to apologize for leaking email addresses of contact tracer staff.

Serco denies that it has any kind of significant track record of failing and human rights violations and that the evictions to which the charities are referring were in Scotland and were ruled legal. It also said that in seven years there had been no substantiated complaints about any sexual wrongdoing at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where reports had revealed allegations.

“We are proud to be supporting the government’s test and trace programme with our Tier 3 contact centre team working from pre-approved Public Health England scripts. This is important work and we would like to thank all our teams who have stepped forward. In just four week we mobilised many thousands of people, which is a huge achievement, and we are focussed on ensuring that all our people are able to support the government’s programme going forwards,” a Serco spokesperson said.

Palantir, the $20 billion big data crunching business, also raised an eyebrow. The company, which has secured millions of dollars in contracts to help health agencies manage the outbreak, has come in for criticism for assisting U.S. immigration authorities on finding and ejecting illegal aliens.

Palantir hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

UK’s delayed COVID-19 app

The charities’ warning comes as the U.K. announced its contact tracing app would be shifting to the Apple and Google models, which promise stronger privacy protections than the app being tested by the government. The main difference is in where user information goes. In the government’s app, anonymized phone IDs of both the infected person and the people they’ve been near are sent to a centralized server, which determines who to warn about possible COVID-19 infection. In the Apple and Google model, only the phone ID of the infected person is sent to a centralized database. The phone then downloads the database and decides where to send alerts. The latter means the government has access to far less data on people’s phones, pleasing some critics but aggravating the government.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps’ use of Bluetooth may’ve been one reason the government’s own app wasn’t as successful as hoped. Bluetooth is being used to determine whether an infected person has been in close proximity with another person’s phone.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International cybersecurity researcher Claudio Guarnieri warned that global rollouts of contact tracing apps were a privacy “trash fire.” After analyzing 11 apps, he found many contained privacy shortcomings. So concerned was Norway that it suspended its tool.

Even with lockdowns easing, those who’re infected are still being advised to isolate. However,  the NHS guidance says that “the household isolation instruction as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.” That message may not have been amplified as much as it should’ve been.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes Staff, Cybersecurity

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South Africa Readies 1.5 Million Graves For Coronavirus Mass Burials

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South Africa’s most populated province, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is preparing some 1.5 million gravesites for potential mass burials, its top health official says, as coronavirus cases in the country begin to spike.

KEY FACTS

  • Dr. Bandile Masuku, the health representative on the Gauteng province executive council, said the graves are being prepared, but he hopes they are not needed.
  • Coronavirus cases and deaths are on the rise in South Africa, and the country has now reported more coronavirus cases than any other on the African continent, which had largely been spared the severe impact coronavirus has had on the rest of the world so far.
  • But Masuku said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Company that a major coronavirus surge is coming.
  • He expects the current spike will continue to worsen until mid-August, but if additional restrictions are put in place, the severity of the spike could be lessened with its peak pushed back until September.
  • Even in a worst-case scenario, Masuku said he doesn’t expect to utilize all the graves, which would require 10% of Gauteng’s 15 million-person population to die, but said it’s better that the province is at least prepared for all the space it could possibly need.
  • Those who are put in the graves will not have individual headstones, Masuku said; instead, there will be one headstone for large numbers of coronavirus victims.

BIG NUMBER

546,318 — That’s how many deaths have been reported worldwide in the pandemic so far, according to Johns Hopkins University—3,502 of which are from South Africa.

KEY BACKGROUND

Much of Africa has not dealt with a significant coronavirus surge like many populated areas in the rest of the world. But still, South African officials have moved to reopen many aspects of what had been a largely shut down country. South Africa is currently in “Level 3” of its reopening, which it entered into in mid-June, easing some restrictions on restaurants, casinos and movie theaters, among other businesses.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Gauteng plans to have 500 beds ready for a coronavirus hospital opening at the end of next week. Another 500 beds should be added by the end of July, Masuku said.

Nicholas Reimann, Forbes Staff, Business

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[IN NUMBERS] Coronavirus Update: COVID-19 In Africa

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While most cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been reported in the U.S. , Europe, and China, the virus is spreading rapidly across the African continent.

The confirmed worldwide cases for the virus have surpassed 11 million with the current figure being at 12,415,672.

The increase in new reported cases around the world has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the coronavirus a global pandemic.

The death toll continues to rise globally. It is currently at 557,925.

The U.S. leads with 135,828 deaths. Brazil is second with 69,254. The U.K is third with 44,602. Italy is fourth with 34,926, and Mexico is fifth with 33,526.

China, where the virus originated from, maintains that the country’s death toll is at 4,634.

The figure of the global recoveries stands at 7,241,644.

The African continent has 545,313 cases of Covid-19, while the death toll stands at 12,503. The continent has made 266,082 recoveries.

Here are the numbers in Africa:

Country Confirmed Cases Confirmed DeathsConfirmed Recoveries
Algeria14,65792810,342
Angola140661
Benin2707228
Botswana60124
Burkina Faso89453804
Burundi85145
Cameroon12,59231310,100
Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)7506301
Central African Republic (CAR)2,2227369
Chad85073720
Comoros1762114
Congo72824221
Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)9,702684,381
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)7,1891762,317
Djibouti4,704554,550
Egypt79,2543,61722,753
Equatorial Guinea1,30612200
Eritrea9639
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)4904249
Ethiopia5,8461032,430
Gabon5,513422,508
Gambia28124
Ghana18,13411713,550
Guinea5,404334,346
Guinea-Bissau1,46015153
Kenya6,6731492,089
Lesotho42
Liberia45832219
Libya4541063
Madagascar1,29010384
Malawi547669
Mali1,8091041,088
Mauritania4,4721291,677
Mauritius33710325
Mayotte2,298191,790
Morocco13,2152309,158
Mozambique5833151
Namibia3217
Niger98066885
Nigeria27,11061610,801
Reunion4951460
Rwanda5822332
Sao Tome and Principe66112177
Senegal7,0541214,599
Seychelles1111
Sierra Leone1,16951680
Somalia2,61888577
South Africa238,3393,720113,061
South Sudan1,6932749
Sudan9,5736024,606
Tanzania50921183
Togo53113299
Tunisia1,09649998
Uganda705299
Western Sahara918
Zambia1,358111,122
Zimbabwe383454

Note: The numbers will be updated as new information is available.

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Empty Roads, Occupied Minds

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With a deadly virus still lurking in the streets and tougher times ahead, traders in South Africa’s colorful townships desperately look to resuscitate their businesses with creative offerings online. 

It’s almost two months into lockdown in South Africa and the country’s townships, once bustling hubs of trade, are slowly bracing themselves, with every ounce of willpower left in them, for the unprecedented reality that is ‘the new normal’.

For many, the national shutdown and closed shutters have meant lost jobs, stalled incomes and empty pockets, not to mention a deadly virus stalking them in every street and alley. The small entrepreneurs here – the lifeblood of any economy – now on their last pennies, are still hopeful their re-evaluated strategies and revamped resilience will see them through this fearful nightmare, as the restrictions ease and the townships will slowly crawl back to life again.

Behind the respectful veneer of the lockdown, some of the smaller traders hustle on illegally, under the radar, dodging police patrols and armed surveillance. They have no choice but to stick to their street-smart ways, to survive and feed their families. 

In the township of Soweto, bigger, popular establishments such as The Box Shop on Vilakazi Street – the historic stretch home to Nobel Peace Prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the country’s former President Nelson Mandela – are looking to the future with great uncertainty, and have been forced to devise alternative digital strategies as lifelines for the present.

Sifiso Moyo founded The Box Shop, a lifestyle and retail outlet with his business partner, Bernard Msimango, and today, the street it’s located on, which attracted thousands of local and international tourists every day prior to the pandemic, is eerily quiet.

It will be a while until planes of international visitors land again, so the duo have chosen to go to them – online.

“For The Box Shop, we built hype around online and have taken the entire offering that existed in our physical infrastructure into a digital platform and that has made us into an innovation space, giving us access to a global audience. We are beginning to see our products being sold in places like Switzerland and the United Kingdom and we now have started harnessing partnerships,” says Moyo.

The website was launched in May, but the bigger vision for the entity was to start as a retail outlet and work backwards into the manufacturing space.

Moyo says the coronavirus taught them two things – to adapt digitally, and to work in the value chain.

The shop now also makes face masks, sold to public hospitals and NGOs.

A short drive from Vilakazi Street is a restaurant named Sancho, selling African cuisine and founded by Thato Mothopeng, a serial entrepreneur who also founded the popular annual Soweto Camp Festival.

Mothopeng is one of the few entrepreneurs in the tourism sector without a formal degree or training, but has had a roaring business nevertheless and is quite well-known in the circuit.

Mothopeng says all SMMEs are at a standstill because business thrives on human contact. But business also needs to be flexible, he adds.

“There are opportunities in the harshest environments. I am using this time to review my strategies. I am also not panicking because the country is managing the crisis; this is an opportunity for SMMEs to reflect because our people are sober now.” 

He had to let go of a few employees and is working remotely.

Further in the township of Soweto, Thembeka Nkosi, the founder of Le Salon, has also developed her own coping mechanisms.

Her shop is shut, but people still seek her grooming advice. As per South Africa’s Level 4 lockdown restrictions, salons and beauty parlors are not allowed to operate.

“This [lockdown] is very stressful, more especially now because other businesses are operating. I still can’t make money, I still have to stay at home and not work,” rues Nkosi.

In addition to getting to spend more time with her five-year-old son, she has recently started sharing her haircare tutorials on social media.

“Now that shops are open to buy hair products, I send video clips to my clients and that brings me joy, knowing that I am still useful to them; even though it’s not making me any money yet, at least I am interacting with my clients,” she says, looking at the bright side.

Ronewa Creations is yet another small business in these parts.

Founded by Lesego Seloane and Dinah Kgeledi, the business offers landscaping services, garden maintenance and water harvesting solutions, and employs seven full-time workers. None of these services are allowed in the current phase of lockdown.

“Now that our province is still on Level 4, it is really difficult to focus because when we were working out our plans, there was so much uncertainty and we didn’t know how they could actually be implemented,” says Seloane.

She is grateful the duo have been active on social media, running a garden makeover campaign and offering landscaping designs for free.

“We are using a three-dimensional technology that revamps the look of gardens to give people an idea of how their gardens could potentially look like in the end.”

Despite the challenges, the two keep sane by spending time with family.

“If the business fails, I fail. If I don’t come out of my down moment quick, then I will fail and the entire organization fails,” says Seloane.

You can detect the determination in her voice to overcome this period, come what may.

Like many around her staring fear in the face, she has no other choice.

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