OPINION

Containing COVID-19 at the Cost of Surrendering Any Vestiges of Privacy: Is It Worth the Pain?

As China and its Asian neighbours have managed to halt the rapid spread of coronavirus through a whole set of measures including mass surveillance, other countries struck by the pandemic are mulling over adopting these best practices. Cyber experts have weighed up whether increased security at the expense of privacy is really worth the pain.

The rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus has forced governments to adopt extraordinary measures: a number of countries including China, Singapore, and South Korea have stepped up surveillance to track those infected with the disease.

The systems which allow one to monitor the movement of people through their smartphones, has already been implemented in 11 countries. However, increased surveillance has immediately raised the issue of a potential abuse of people’s privacy by governments and hackers.

Asian Mass Surveillance: Better Safe Than Sorry?

China was the first one to instrumentalise its street CCTV cameras, drones, facial recognition technology, mobile apps and a whole lot more in order to curb the spread. Dr Binoy Kampmark, a cyber security expert, recollects that the Chinese government call to high-tech companies to develop software to conduct surveillance on those who have contracted COVID-19 and those in contact with the infected has led to several advances that risk being abused.

“The systems in term of identifying and monitoring individuals regarding the coronavirus have amplified recently”, says Kampmark. “Megvii, for instance, uses artificial intelligence to measure temperature, employing what it calls the ‘AI temperature measurement system’. Thermal cameras are used to identify suspected suffers with abnormally high temperatures”.

He notes that programmes such as the “Close Contact Detector” app, developed jointly by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation and sections of the Chinese government, are informing users about someone in their proximity who have been infected or are suspected of being infected. For its part, Chinese company Baidu claims that it “has developed a facial-scanning program capable of using AI to identify individuals who do not wear protective masks”, Kampmark remarks.

South Korea followed the suit by tracking people’s movement through surveillance cameras, bank card transactions and mobile phone location data which help create an application mapping coronavirus cases and sending emergency alerts in real time.

“In South Korea, a three-pronged surveillance approach has been adopted to combat COVID-19, all of it typical of pandemic surveillance”, the cyber security specialist points out. “CCTV has been deployed along with phone tracking software and banking transactions. Such technological infrastructure has been celebrated as containing COVID-19 but at the cost of surrendering any vestiges of privacy”.

All of a sudden, the private life and even the sexual affairs of Koreans tested positive for Covid-19 became the focus of public attention. As Hyung Eun Kim of BBC News Korean noted in early March, though no names or addresses were given social media users managed to connect the dots, identify and embarrass the infected.

Nevertheless, it seems that “a large degree of consent has been offered in this regard” by the people of South Korea, Kampmark suggests.

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