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Strict surveillance and zero privacy: the new normal for post coronavirus pandemic era

Updated: May 10, 2020

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Successful efforts in several Asian countries already have shown that absent a vaccine or effective treatment, the best way to fight COVID-19 is to aggressively “track and trace” infected individuals. Using tools from location tracking to smartphone apps, governments have been able to monitor shifting patterns of movement to indicate how best to impose or lift restrictions. They’ve also been able to alert individuals whose infection might need to be communicated to those who have recently crossed their path.

Authorities around the world are using facial recognition, apps, and big data to track the spread of COVID-19 and monitor people under quarantine

Countries are rushing to develop apps to give a detailed picture of the risk of catching the coronavirus, as the chain of infection is proving hard to break because it can be spread by those showing no symptoms.

In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth “handshakes” between mobile devices as the best way of registering potential contact, even though it does not provide location data.

Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus. Some of these measures impose severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, including their privacy and other human rights. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world. Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers, only to be used temporarily in emergencies. Others use exemptions in data protection laws to share data.

From China to Russia, containment measures have often come with heightened surveillance, as authorities use artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to keep tabs on the population, alarming human rights activists and privacy experts. Here is a rundown of governments rolling out technology to track and contain the outbreak: CHINA Authorities across China have rolled out "big data" measures, adding to a host of monitoring tools already being used, such as facial recognition and phone data tracking. These include apps monitoring the daily temperature of students preparing to return to school or assigning people colour codes based on their travels, time spent in outbreak hotspots and exposure to potential carriers of the virus. SOUTH KOREA In South Korea, private software developers have set up websites and apps to help people track cases and shun places where infected people have been. Identities were not published but the information that was enabled web developers to build detailed maps tracking the movements of patients. Those in quarantine are monitored through a mobile app. People who breach self-isolation rules will be made to wear an electronic wristband, according to local media reports. AUSTRALIA Australia is to roll out an app already used in Singapore to improve contact tracing by detecting whether people had spent more than 15 minutes with others who may have been infected. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said downloading the smartphone software would initially be voluntary, but declined to rule out making its use compulsory. INDIA People suspected of having the coronavirus in India have received hand stamps and are being tracked using their mobile phones and personal data to help enforce quarantines. Government officials are also pulling out citizen and reservation data from airlines and the railways to track suspected infections. The southern state of Karnataka has asked people in-home quarantine to upload one selfie an hour to a phone app during the daytime to confirm their whereabouts, according to local media reports. SINGAPORE Singapore, which has been using police investigators and security cameras to help track suspect carriers, launched a contact-tracing smartphone app to allow authorities to identify those who have been exposed to people infected with the coronavirus. Records of the encounters will be stored locally on each phone and the data will be encrypted. The app will not access other information, such as a user's location, and its functionality will be suspended after the epidemic subsides.

Automating the assessment of who is at risk and telling them to see a doctor, get tested or self-isolate is seen by advocates as a way to speed up a task that typically entails phone calls and house calls. Contact tracing apps are already in use in Asia, but copying their approach by using location data would violate Europe's privacy laws. Instead, Bluetooth chatter between devices is seen as a better way to measure person-to-person contacts. The apps should be voluntary, and would need to be downloaded by at least 60% of the population to achieve the so-called "digital herd immunity" needed to suppress COVID-19, say researchers from Oxford University's Big Data Institute. Yet the controversy over the best way forward could delay the rollout of apps to help governments, once they have brought the pandemic under control, to contain any new outbreaks.

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