If properly used, technology can be a very important ally to face local and global problems. The war against Covid-19 is clearly one of those problems and many countries, especially in Asia, are putting in place technological solutions to overcome it and to ensure national security.
In the following analysis we will examine some of the technological answers to the Covid-19 pandemic in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Israel.
China’s government asked for the support of tech giants. On messaging and payment apps (WeChat and Alipay) they made it possible for users to insert the place they visited in the previous days, their ID, as well as if they have been in contact with anyone hospitalized. It is very likely that, since those apps already registered social and consuming habits of users, the government used big data analysis to gain as much information as possible on its citizens. The apps compare the location data of the user with the health status of people who travelled across the same areas. Depending on the probability that the subject had contact with people tested positive for COVID-19, he will eventually receive a QR code based on a three-level security system: “red” requires the individual to stay in quarantine for a period of 14 days; conversely, “yellow” and “green” means that the individual must exhibit the QR code on his mobile to have partial or total access to public areas.
China is also using specific hardware to contain the infection. For example, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen deployed contactless temperature checking tools in schools, subway stations and community centers; these tools alert authorities when people with abnormal body temperature are detected. A Chinese AI firm worked to improve those tools in order to enable them to identify citizens who are not wearing masks. In the city of Chengtu, the capital of Sichuan, officials are using smart helmets to measure people’s temperature within 5 meters.
The Chinese police is using CCTVs and drones to complete its surveillance apparatus. The government pointed cameras at the apartment doors of those under quarantine and it is also using drones integrated with speakers to monitor and provide people with directives. Some videos show drones telling citizens to keep proper distance, walk faster and wear masks; in addition, they even recommended old people to go home. In some cases, people complained that new cameras were installed right in front of their homes.
The other example of technology used to avoid any form of contact with isolated subjects is showed in a Hangzhou hotel where robot-waiters were used to deliver meals to quarantined travellers.
The methodology implemented in China, a highly technological country, as well as the first one undertaking the fight against the coronavirus, has been looked at by other countries as a model to follow.
One peculiarity of the special administrative region of Hong Kong is the use of an electronic bracelet. Because most of the contagion cases are imported from abroad, all travellers reaching the city from overseas are obliged to wear the wristband, download an app, StayHomeSafe, and scan the unique QR code printed on the bracelet. Once the subject reaches his accommodation, he has to walk around the apartment so that the wrist tracker can detect the perimeter. This geofencing technology allows authorities to be alerted when someone wearing a bracelet goes out of the digital fence.
The South Korean government also used big data such as: credit card transactions, videos from CCTV cameras and smartphone localization (from both GPS and transceivers). When the authorities spot a potential COVID-19 case, they conduct a verbal investigation asking questions on symptoms and personal contacts with others. The final result is the coronamap, available on the internet, which informs the citizens when and if a place was visited by a subject detected as positive to COVID-19.
The city-state also developed an app, TraceTogether, which uses a technique which is different from the ones used by the other countries: it doesn’t track data from the GPS but uses Bluetooth signals to detect if users have been near one another and for how long. In other words, this system doesn’t focus on the locations but rather on interactions. This data, mixed with health ministry information on infected citizens, allows the detection of people who may have been in contact with COVID-19 positive subjects and consequently be contacted by an operator who will ask to map their movements and interactions.
The Middle-East state applied the anti-terrorism monitoring methodology and technology to track down where people have been by using phone location data. In the past few years, the Shin Bet (the internal security service) has already been collecting the movements of citizens for counter-terrorism purposes and now a government decree has allowed the secret service to use these data for the Covid-19 emergency. Additionally, Israel is encouraging the population to download an app, המגן – the Shield, which compares the locations data on the smartphone with the Health Ministry database. In this way, the user receives an alert if he has potentially been in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual.
Technologies are always beneficial if correctly used and that is the enormous critical point. All over the world technological solutions raise social and privacy concerns. In times of crisis like the ones we are now facing, it seems necessary to renegotiate the balance between security and freedom. Countries have the moral duty to commensurate their response to the emergency with proportionate measures. Many citizens are not worried so much by the eventual power achieved by governments during the crisis, but rather by the fact that governments might maintain such measures after the crisis.
The ultimate problem relies in the fact that “the right thing to do”, in relation to ethics, proportion and correctness of measures, will only be confirmed or refuted by the results and the impacts that will emerge in the future.