Thomson Foundation: The two-year fight against COVID-19 has turned technology into the weapon of choice to defeat the virus, but experts now fear that the technology will survive the pandemic and normalize mass surveillance.
From contact tracing apps to facial recognition, the technology has become part of the arsenal used to protect public health.
While this may have helped save lives, advocates say intrusive solutions may already be so entrenched that privacy is the long-term price many people could still pay.
“Once a large system is introduced into a society, it is difficult to fundamentally fix it, even if a problem is later discovered,” said Chang Yeo-Kyung, executive director of the South Korean Institute for digital rights.
The country has been largely a COVID-19 success story, thanks in part to aggressive testing and tracing.
This year, as cases of the highly infectious but less deadly variant of Omicron rose, it scrapped contact tracing and mandatory isolation of vaccinated people in favor of self-diagnosis and home treatment to free up resources. medical.
Yet in December he announced a nationally funded pilot project to use artificial intelligence, facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movements of infected people – a move that has raised concerns about confidentiality.
The project was supposed to start in January in Bucheon, one of the country’s most densely populated cities on the outskirts of Seoul, but it reportedly faced delays.
“There are fears that surveillance will become a ‘new normal’ for our society after COVID-19,” Chang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.
For example, he said people have already gotten used to showing proof of identity before entering a venue.
The government has also pushed the envelope, Chang said, in one instance using cellphone towers to identify thousands of people at a given location – meeting little resistance.
QR CODES AND BODY HEAT
Elsewhere in Asia, countries from Singapore to India, Thailand to Taiwan continue to use contact tracing apps to track local residents and keep tabs on tourists.
Singapore, Thailand and others also widely use QR codes for check-ins at malls, restaurants, airports and other locations.
Singapore last year said it would allow police to use personal data from its contact-tracing app in “serious” criminal investigations and introduced a bill with penalties, including prison sentences. imprisonment, for the misuse of data.
The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir said last year it had shared data from a contact tracing app with local police.
App-based food delivery companies, such as Zomato and Swiggy, have started sharing workers’ names and body temperatures with customers.
Several Indian cities have also made it mandatory for city workers to wear tracking devices, while teachers in New Delhi have filed a lawsuit to end the use of biometrics in an attendance app they say , invades their privacy.
The increase in surveillance has prompted intensified debate and legal action, say digital rights experts, as fears grow that surveillance has already gone too far.
“We were asked to provide a lot of data in an effort to control the virus. Sometimes it was necessary, sometimes it wasn’t,” said Carissa Veliz, a professor at the Institute of AI Ethics at the University of Washington. ‘Oxford in Britain.
“On the other hand…we’re seeing more backlash than before and more awareness…I think people are tired of feeling spied on.”
Estelle Masse, global data protection manager at rights group Access Now, said contact-tracing apps in Europe have done relatively well in terms of privacy, thanks in part to more public discourse.
“Much of the potential privacy risk that might have existed did not materialize,” she said.
European apps, for example, largely stored data on people’s phones rather than in a central database, she said, while the scope of recorded information only expanded as needed. to know.
But not everything went according to plan — not when authorities used private data designed to contain the virus for other reasons.
In Germany, prosecutors in Mainz have apologized after it emerged that police had surreptitiously obtained details of people gathered by a private contact tracing app, Luca, as part of an investigation into the death of ‘a man.
Luca said the app worked because police only got access to his data about a restaurant the man visited after tricking the health department into believing it was the site of a infection.
Similar cases have caused a stir in Australia, where two states have tested facial recognition software allowing police to check whether people were home during quarantine.
And in Britain, reports that the terms and conditions of some QR code check-in apps used by pubs and restaurants held customer data for years and raised eyebrows.
This underscored the importance of minimizing the amount of data that can be collected and putting in place strong legal frameworks around its use, Masse said.
But as the world moves from pandemic to endemic, it was also time to start discussing what was next, she said.
“We’re entering a phase when it comes to questions like ‘how long are we going to need these apps? “” she said.
If they were no longer deemed necessary, governments had a duty to help phase them out and ensure that companies did not reuse the tools for other purposes.
“It’s kind of the nature of the internet, platforms disappear and people forget they have an account somewhere. But these are apps that have been pushed by governments to be used by millions of people,” said Mass.
“As governments have supported their deployment and use, they will also have to support their removal with users.”
Still, some developers think their apps will have a life after COVID now that people know the benefits of digitizing services — as long as they’re coupled with data protection.
Patrick Hennig, director of German app Luca, said his company’s experience tracking the virus on sites could easily be used to streamline restaurant payments or hotel check-ins.
“(People) are very willing to share their data if they really see the benefits,” he said. “If things are done correctly then there is no problem, the general population will accept it.”