Most experts and health officials believe an effective way of slowing the ongoing covid-19 pandemic is to find and isolate those who have been in touch with the infected. With that, different countries have different methods to enforce quarantine; perform contact tracing, and record where people have been and their likelihood of contracting the disease.

The technology in question

In South Korea, the authority uses a customized application (i.e., the self-quarantine safety protection app) that will alert officials when a person strays off where they ought to be. In Hong Kong, individuals were issued digital bracelets. In Taiwan, quarantine people’s phones are traced using data from cell-phone masts. In China, the provincial governments had created the Health Check app, which leverages on existing digital payment and communication platforms Alipay and WeChat, keeps records of the places a person had visited and their symptoms to generate a colored QR code. With green corresponding to free movement; orange to seven-day quarantine, and red to 14-day quarantine.

Although the captured data and details are usually sent to the government and health officials, they may also be passed onto third parties or commercial agents that develop these apps in the first place. As such, there are questions whether privacy is giving way to pandemic control.

Some questioned if mass surveillance is the right way to contain a viral outbreak because at the end of the day, not everyone that an infectious person come into contact with, will be infected. Unless the system also takes into consideration how long the virus may linger in the environment, otherwise, if it only alerts everyone who has once been in touch with an infectious person, this may overwhelm the demand for a test. Besides, if quarantine is not carried out in a rational manner, it may create unneeded stigma and over-reliance on technologies is also ignoring the health and safety of those who do not have internet access in the first place.

When social responsibility outweighs everything

Indeed, most of these technologies are experimental. We are only certain of their potential but not their true benefits. Even if some of them do work in the best interests of mankind, we do not know if their impacts can be sustained over a long period of time or if they are worth repeating in another epidemic or even pandemic. However, under the name of social responsibility, people do not have much choice or even time to doubt. What probably concern them the most right now is whether the government can exercise modesty and caution, when they can openly deploy these new surveillance tools?

Fortunately, places where strict surveillance, quarantine and contact tracing rules have been imposed have successfully contained the covid-19 outbreak, whereas areas that are shy of doing so, are now facing a swamp of caseloads on their healthcare systems. Google and Facebook were in discussions with the US government earlier on the sharing of anonymized location data via Google map and the social media platform. Both parties rejected the proposal, claiming their products are not designed to render robust data that are dedicated for disease control or medical purposes, whereas the true may be the two companies do not wish to be involved in anything that could possibly raise questions on breaching privacy.

On a positive note, there are new initiatives to tackle the concern. For example, a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be releasing an application prototype entitled Private Kit: Safe Paths. It keeps up to 28 days of the user’s GPD location data that’s being logged once every five minutes. If the user is found to be a coronavirus carrier, he or she can choose to share the information with health authorities to single out places where individuals may be at risks of being infected.

Likewise, the German government is developing an application known as GeoHealth which request users to “donate” their location history only if they have been tested positive for covid-19. The donated will be kept anonymized on a central server. Making data sharing optional and voluntary may be a good move as of now. However, whether it’s equally effective in controlling the pandemic from spreading is yet another question. Ultimately, what we need to consider is how to limit the inevitable increase in cases when quarantine and social-distancing eventually come to an end?


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.