Coronavirus News Asia

Privacy sacrifices a concern amid virus crisis

The Covid-19 saga is a consequence of the turbulence of the globalization process and the interconnectivity of human economic activity. Indeed, this story that is rocking the globe is having a variegated effect on national governments – but at the same time, the response might create a dilemma all countries will have to face. 

In one sense, the pandemic is a test for all governments: a test for the resiliency of public health systems, the effectiveness of fiscal and administrative action, and the ability of communities to come together to help those in need and take preventive measures to stop the spread of the disease.  

One common aspect among the various national responses concerns smartphones and personal data. Amid the crisis, governments have utilized the big-data ecosystem to fight against Covid-19. These tools include: AI-driven predictive models that help track and anticipate the spread of the virus through geo-locational data; supply-chain management practices centered on data analytics that coordinate supply and demand from the assembly line to the consumer; and algorithms that help prepare medical staff and hospital systems for increased patient volume.  

Data, data, data …

For example, the algorithms used in China not only approximated the chances that a certain neighborhood or individual would be infected, but also ensured that high-risk areas were supplied with needed tests and equipment at the height of the outbreak. Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent went further and introduced health code systems within their platforms that assigned a color code – red, yellow or green – to users that indicated whether they needed to be quarantined for two weeks, for seven days, or could move freely. A person needed this code to enter public places such as metro stations, malls, and residential and non-residential buildings. 

In another instance, South Korea extensively tracked and tested people, allowing government authorities to create a centralized map that was later made available to the public, notifying users when they came as close as 100 meters to a location previously visited by a person carrying the virus. The data involved in this notification process included the infected person’s age and gender, movement data re-created from surveillance cameras, and credit-card transactions used in smart-city technology systems. 

Hong Kong is yet another example of a government that used technology to stop the virus. The city required arriving passengers to wear a wristband containing GPS (Global Positioning System) chips for a two-week self-quarantine period. Similarly, in Thailand, air passengers arriving from “high-risk” countries had to install a mandatory smartphone application that could track their location and notify Thai authorities if the person had violated movement restrictions.

Privacy, cybersecurity concerns

Despite decreased levels of new Covid-19 cases in these countries and public health successes, the use of this technology on a mass scale raises several privacy, legal and cybersecurity challenges that warrant attention. 

Some apps have disclosed extremely detailed data of people during the crisis, exposing their identity and sensitive personal information putting them at great risk of harm. While surveillance technology that tracks people’s movements has created opportunities in the public health crisis, a failure in the security of these systems could cause catastrophic harm, especially if governments are distracted and fail to take adequate measures.  

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