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‘It’s Like Taping a Spare Key to Your Front Door’

COVID-Panic in India Brings Pleas for Help on Social Media, Putting Private Data at Risk

Soldiers for the Jammu and Kashmir State Disaster Response Force in India carry empty coffins for transporting bodies of people who died of COVID-19 outside a government medical hospital last week.

By Sakshi Udavant

COVID-19 continues to ravage India — setting a global record last Wednesday for more deaths in a single day than any other country at any time during the pandemic — and forcing citizens to turn to social media to plea for medical help, financial assistance, or even such basic supplies as oxygen, food and hospital beds.

But with many people publicly sharing sensitive personal information — cellphone numbers, addresses, health conditions, family data, bank details — they open themselves up to possible data theft, fraud and other information abuses, experts told Digital Privacy News.

“While the risk of this data being processed by the website where they are posted remains, the immediate risk is from people who use this information to harass or scam the people who are desperately seeking help,” said Shweta Mohandas, policy officer at Centre for Internet and Society-India (CIS).

“It is very difficult to assess who is genuine and who is not, when a lot depends on the help of strangers.”

Shivvy Jervis, an Indian tech researcher now in London, summed up the situation this way to Digital Privacy News: “It’s like taping a spare key to your front door for emergencies.

“It is very difficult to assess who is genuine and who is not, when a lot depends on the help of strangers.”

Shweta Mohandas, Centre for Internet and Society.

“Cybercriminals use this data to gain access to bank accounts, apply for loans on your behalf — or just cause problems out of spite.

“If a criminal knows you’ve asked for COVID help online,” Jervis continued, “they will call you and ask you to pay a ‘vaccine fee’ to be put on a vaccine register to receive one.”

Widespread Scams

Lukas Stefanko, a malware researcher in the Slovak Republic, tweeted last month about a scam that preyed upon frantic Indian citizens. The post discussed an Android SMS worm that installed malware on devices upon use — while news reports disclosed how a scrapyard business repainted fire extinguishers and sold them as oxygen canisters.

In recent weeks, police in New Delhi have arrested more than 200 people for cheating and fraud-related crimes.

“I have seen all kinds of predators and all forms of depravity, but this level of predation and depravity I have not seen in the 36 years of my career or in my life,” Vikram Singh, a former police chief in Uttar Pradesh told The Economic Times.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most-populous state, with 200 million people. A court last week said that citizens had been left “at God’s mercy” because of the pandemic.

One-Day Record of Deaths

Last Wednesday, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported a record 4,529 COVID deaths in the previous 24 hours, driving India’s confirmed fatalities that day to 283,248.

The agency also disclosed 267,334 new infections in the period, as daily cases remained below 300,000 for the third straight day, according to news reports. The numbers are almost certainly undercounts.

The previous record for the most daily coronavirus deaths was set on Jan. 12 in the United States, when 4,475 people died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

As of Monday, India has 26.7 million confirmed cases and 303,720 deaths, according to Hopkins data. The country is second to the United States, with 33.1 million cases and 589,953 deaths.

India opened up COVID vaccinations to all adults this month, but the pace of administering shots has plunged — with states reporting huge shortages of doses for citizens.

The number of daily administered doses has fallen by about half over the last six weeks, AP reported, from a high of 4 million a day on April 2 to around 2 million or less last week.

As of Monday, 192.9 million vaccine doses had been administered in India, according to Hopkins.

Contagious Variants

The coronavirus took a more disastrous turn in India in February, primarily because of more contagious variants as well as decisions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to allow crowd-gatherings for religious festivals and political rallies.

As deaths climbed, supplies dwindled and crematoriums ran out of wood — even hundreds of bodies began washing up on the banks of the Ganges River — frenzied Indians turned to social media begging for assistance.

Even hospitals pleaded for oxygen. News reports last month disclosed that 24 COVID patients on ventilators died from an oxygen leak in a hospital in Nashik, a city in Maharashtra state, and that government officials flew 23 mobile oxygen-generating plants from Germany to help with the shortage.

Further, Twitter was flooded with nearly one request every 30 seconds last month alone — with posts carrying such hashtags as #Urgent, #COVID, #oxygen and #hospitalbed.

‘Patient Is Critical’

“Urgent!!” one post began, for instance. “Need ventilator bed in Vijayawada. Patient is critical, Spo2 is very low. Anyone have any leads?? Please help.” 

The tweet featured an image with the patient’s personal details: name, age, gender, location, details about their current health condition — as well as the name and mobile number of a relative.

Another tweet, which included a medical prescription, said: “Urgent need for inj #ramdesivir for my friend’s uncle, who was tested #covidpositive. They needed 6 vials … 4 vials are arranged. Need 2 vials urgently. Please help #CovidIndia #COVID19.”

Within weeks, the Twittersphere had more than 15,000 such posts, some of which Modi’s government had ordered taken down, according to reports.

The government said in a statement last month that the removed posts “spread fake or misleading information” and created “panic about the COVID-19 situation in India by using unrelated, old and out-of-the-context images or visuals.”

“Cybercriminals use this data to gain access to bank accounts, apply for loans on your behalf — or just cause problems out of spite.”

Shivvy Jervis, Indian tech researcher in London.

It was hard to determine specifically whether the online pleas were helpful, but Twitter two weeks ago said it had donated $15 million to three non-governmental organizations in India: CARE, Aid India and Sewa International USA.

In addition, volunteers of U.S. faith groups with ties to India mobilized relief efforts. They collecting hundreds of oxygen concentrators and electrical transformers to ship to overwhelmed hospitals.

They also raised millions for everything from food to firewood for funeral pyres, while gathering in prayer for spiritual support for the nation.

Practical Realities

While sharing personal information online generally is risky, experts noted the heightened realities of Indians during the pandemic.

“When you have a sick child in your arms, it’s hard to care about data security,” Jervis said.

Mohandas, of CIS, observed: “The responsibility to not misuse information is much greater than the responsibility of the person who needs to provide this information” maybe even with the knowledge that this is sensitive information “in order to save theirs or someone else’s life.”

Government Under Fire

Seeking assistance through official government channels is better, Jervis suggested, though Modi’s government has come under fire by citizen groups for not providing more frequent updates on death tolls and on guidelines for getting vaccines.

“It’s not foolproof, but it reduces the risk of phishing and other scams,” she told Digital Privacy News.

“The government and health agencies should keep releasing regular updates to the public,” Jervis added, “along with safety advice, to ensure people don’t panic or become frustrated and take more risks.

“Introducing stiffer penalties for data breaches or cybercrimes in the meantime,” she further suggested, “could offer a cooling effect for the criminals in the short term.”

Sakshi Udavant is a writer in India.