COVID-19 is rapidly changing people’s day to day lives across the globe.
China has instituted large-scale lockdowns on travel, quarantining whole cities, while France has banned large gatherings and the U.S. has taken moves to allow huge sections of the workforce to work from home and is even exploring measures to pay hourly workers who are sick or forced to self-quarantine. As the headline of a New York Times op-ed succinctly put it, “Everyone’s a Socialist in a Pandemic.”
As governments look to contain the spread of COVID-19, they’re turning to every tool at their disposal, including large surveillance networks, personal cell phone tracking, and AI and facial recognition. In the interest of preserving a society's health, it makes sense to use every option available. But it does raise privacy questions that will need to be addressed when the virus (hopefully) has moved on. What’s good in an emergency response situation may not be suitable for normal day to day life, as we arguably learned in the aftermath of 9/11, as government surveillance capacities have greatly increased and big tech has built whole businesses models based on sifting through and finding value in our data.
In China, SenseTime, a highly valued AI firm, is being deployed in multiple cities in order to identify people with elevated temperatures, as well as those who aren’t wearing face masks. On its website, the company touts its “Smart AI Epidemic Prevention Solutions.” The company calls it a “quick and effective system in screening and detecting individuals with elevated temperature in a crowd. The AI-powered solution can be deployed at building entrances and public spaces including airports, train and subway stations, as well as office buildings. The solution enables supporting staff to identify individuals with a fever – an indicating symptom of coronavirus infection – without direct body contact, minimizing the risk of cross-infection.”
SenseTime told the BBC its tech has been deployed in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Other companies such as Megvii advertise a similar product, which has been rolled out in Beijing, according to the company, and describes it as an “AI-enabled temperature detection solution that integrates body detection, face detection and dual sensing via infrared cameras and visible light.”
It’s not just external cameras being used to track individuals. It’s also the very device many people take with them everywhere, our smartphones. Telecom companies in China are handing over records of customers' movements to the government as well as letting users know if they have been in an impacted area recently, while places such as Singapore have worked to trace infected individuals’ movements through data from ride-sharing apps, Monash University academics, in Australia, found.
Meanwhile, the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) launched a new government platform, Close Contact Detector, which pulls publicly available transit data from the Ministry of Transport, China Railway and China's aviation authority and combines it with information from health authorities. Users can access the service via Alipay, WeChat and QQ.
Apps themselves can be used to track users’ locations over the course of their lifetimes. One of the most egregious examples is the the system called Health Code, which dictates freedom of movement, whether people should be quarantined, or even allowed into public spaces, while also sharing location data with police.
Analysis by the New York Times “found that as soon as a user grants the software access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled ‘reportInfoAndLocationToPolice’ sends the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server.”
There is little to no transparency as to how the app functions, what data it collects and where the data is sent.
“With the coronavirus outbreak the idea of risk scoring and restrictions on movement quickly became reality,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian. “Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability of people to push back.”
Events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo have allowed mass surveillance techniques to become the norm in China. The same could happen with the coronavirus.
It’s fair to argue these measures are necessary as the world grapples with a pandemic it hasn’t seen the likes of in a decade. But the Chinese government has a habit of saying the quiet part loud.
"In the era of big data and internet, the movements of each person can be clearly seen,” Li Lanjuan, an adviser to the National Health Commission, said on national television, according to the BBC.
But these are extreme measures taken to address an extreme situation. They should not be treated as normal, reasonable or inevitable. To do so means they might just outlast the scope of the pandemic and fundamentally change the lives of billions of people.
CORRECTION (March. 21, 12:51 UTC): This article incorrectly identified the Health Code system as Alipay Health Code. The Health Code program is developed by the Chinese government and hosted on the Alipay app through an API.
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