ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's intelligence services are deploying secretive surveillance technology normally used to locate militants to instead track coronavirus patients and those with whom they come into contact.
In a programme publicly touted by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the government has turned to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency for help in tackling the virus, which still is spreading at an accelerating rate across Pakistan.
Turning counter-terrorism technology against the pandemic
Details about the project have not been released, but two officials told AFP that intelligence services are using geo-fencing and phone-monitoring systems that ordinarily are employed to hunt high-value targets including home-grown and foreign militants.
A lack of awareness, stigma and fear have contributed to some Pakistanis with symptoms not seeking treatment or even fleeing hospitals, while others who have had contact with virus patients have flouted self-isolation rules.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior security official told AFP that agencies are now "quite effectively" using the technology to track coronavirus cases.
"The government has been successful in tracing even those who tested positive but went into hiding," the security official said.
Geo-fencing, a discreet tracking system that alerts authorities when someone leaves a specific geographic area, has helped officials monitor neighbourhoods on lockdown.
Authorities are listening in to the calls of COVID-19 patients to monitor whether their contacts are talking about having symptoms.
"The trace-and-track system basically helps us track the mobile phones of corona patients as well as anyone they get in touch with before or after their disappearance," an intelligence official said.
Khan recently praised the programme, which has come up against little public debate or scrutiny over its use in the virus fight.
"It was originally used against terrorism, but now it has come in useful against coronavirus," he said.
Concerns about official response
More than 61,000 Pakistanis have tested positive for the disease, and more than 1,260 patients have died.
But with testing still limited, officials worry the true numbers are much higher.
Rights groups worry authorities might abuse their sweeping surveillance powers.
"The task of tracking and tracing the patients and suspected cases should be dealt with by provincial governments and local communities -- let intelligence agencies do their actual job," rights activist and ex-senator Afrasiab Khattak told AFP.