Public sharing of home quarantine addresses a bad idea

This article originally appeared in Deccan Herald

On March 24, several WhatsApp groups catering to apartment associations started buzzing with excel files containing addresses of those who were placed under home quarantine. The source was a website run by the Government of Karnataka which contained details for all districts in Karnataka (deleted ‘purportedly). This author was eventually able to access the website which contained approximately 30 files. It is unclear whose decision it was to make these details public. Statements from government officials indicate this was a deliberate step. However, it seems to be at odds with how sensitively matters are reportedly being handled by teams on the ground, who were informing nearby residents as needed.

Why is this a bad idea?

On March 14, a leading English daily misreported a story that the spouse of a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 had skipped quarantine and traveled to another Indian city. There were several calls for exemplary punishment, but it later turned out that the person in question had not violated quarantine instructions at the time of travelling. Sure, certain questionable decisions were made subsequently. But we need to be aware that these are unprecedented times and no one is really prepared to deal with the situation. The fear and self-preservation instinct is apparent. But there is also a danger of uncontrolled reactions by the general public in such a scenario.

Over the last few days we have also seen disturbing reports of airline crew and healthcare professionals facing a backlash at their respective places of residence. Videos have also emerged showing people physically abusing fellow citizens for coughing in public and not wearing masks. Regrettably citizens from the North-East have been subject to racial abuse.

This is why it is ill-advised to publicly share this kind of information. While individual names and phone numbers have not been shared, an address is enough to enable targeting (changed slightly).  In information security terms, it can be considered a form of  doxing people (publicly posting personal information). The individuals living at those addresses have been put at risk of being on the receiving end of discriminatory and abusive behaviour. While some of them may have violated their quarantine instructions, treating all of them as potential criminals is not an acceptable response (changed slightly).

Unwittingly aiding the flow of information

Another important aspect to consider is the role of unaffected individuals in circulating this information. The Bengaluru version of the list was doing the rounds on WhatsApp since the evening of March 24. And it continued to be circulated by people even if they disagreed with the practice or could not vouch for its authenticity. As expected, the link to the website eventually made its way onto Twitter and was shared by users with a large number of followers. Others shared it with the intention of being helpful and sharing information. Unfortunately, in such a situation, these actions only aided the virality of the information. 

There is also a tendency to believe that since the information is already out there, individual sharing actions do not matter. However, when the information in question can put someone else at risk, we must consider the downstream implications of that individual action too.

What is the right way to react?

Understanding how to react to minimise the risk to others in such situations is important. Although it is tempting to share such information with acquaintances or  Tweet about specifics while disagreeing with the action, it is necessary to consider if the unintended consequence of the action.

If the intention is to raise awareness about the lack of sensitivity, then the act itself can be highlighted without sharing the location/source of such information. It must be remembered that this action can have the second order effect of nudging others to look for it.

Another possible course of action is to reach out directly to the authorities who have made this information public. This  may not be possible in all situations but can be an effective strategy. It should be noted that their actions or decisions are not always taken with bad intentions. Those responsible may react positively to such interventions if the risks are clearly highlighted to them. 

Why is sharing-hygiene important?

This sharing hygiene is especially important as we see more [information disorder] flooding our lives. The large platforms where this information proliferates are attempting to take measures to tackle this but such content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. It is as much a demand-side problem as it is a supply-side problem. Passively sharing information may have more consequences than we realise. We have a collective role to play in curbing information disorder.