What governments are using to contain COVID-19

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 2 Summer 2020

By early June, 38 countries had turned to a variety of technologies, including smartphone applications, location data analytics, wearable technologies, and even drones and unmanned ground vehicles to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and to control the behaviour of citizens during the pandemic. The use of some of this tech has raised concerns among civil libertarians.

Following are descriptions of commonly used technologies that might not be familiar to all our readers.

Alerts and applications

Smartphone applications can provide phone owners with updates on the pandemic. They also enable digital contact tracing and data collection. And they provide a means of monitoring individuals under quarantine

Contact tracing tracks down all people who might have been infected by a person known to have COVID-19. These individuals are then informed that they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and are encouraged or ordered to self-quarantine or take other measures to control spread.

In countries including South Korea, anyone who has been quarantined must download an approved contact-tracing application on their personal cellphone. South Korea has also used credit card information to track the movement of infected individuals and to inform others who may have come in contact with them.

In parts of China, individuals must download a phone app that rates the health of the phone’s owner with a colour code. Green allows the individual to travel freely, while red and yellow mean that the person must report to health officials immediately.

In Poland, quarantined individuals must download an app that requires them to check in with authorities intermittently by sending a time-stamped photograph of themselves at home.

So far, using a contact-tracing app is voluntary in most other countries and has not been taken up by many individuals. There was no widespread adoption of the TraceTogether application in Singapore, partly because of concerns about data privacy. But apps are only effective when adopted by at least 60 per cent of the population.

Many people share these privacy concerns. They also want answers to a variety of questions. What sort of data is being gathered?  Who can access it? How long will the information be kept?

Anonymized customer data

In response to privacy concerns, some governments have focused on accessing anonymized customer data. Mobile providers give governments cellphone data with personal identifying information removed. Still, there are some concerns that, in practice, it would not be difficult to re-identify individuals, particularly in a small community or area.

In March, Austria’s largest telecom provider AG stated that it was providing location data from individual phones so that the government could better understand population movements. To satisfy privacy concerns, the provider only gave aggregated data sets, that is summary observations of data rather than individual information.

Data analytics

Several countries are collecting information across different platforms in databases and using data-analytics technology to understand trends. It is not clear who is authorized to access the databases or what kind of analytical tools are being used. In Canada, the province of Ontario has granted the provincial police access to the database containing information about active COVID cases.

Electronic wristbands

Wearable devices, particularly electronic bracelets and wristbands, are being used in several countries to ensure that individuals infected with COVID-19 remain quarantined.

Wearable devices are mandatory for those quarantined in Hong Kong. In Bahrain, individuals with the virus must wear an electronic bracelet that is connected to a contact-tracing app and are monitored to ensure that they obey quarantine restrictions; those that break the rules could face time in prison.

Facial-recognition technology

Countries including China and Russia use facial-recognition technology in combination with cellphone data and data analytics. Some reports suggest that Chinese tech firms can identify individuals wearing face coverings and masks. In France, the Paris metro employs facial-recognition technology that monitors riders to check on mask-wearing trends.

Geofencing

Geofencing is a virtual perimeter that is created around certain spaces in the real world. In India, individuals can be alerted by their electronic wristband when they enter an area that has been identified as creating a risk or is in some other way significant, such as a public gathering space or public transit.

Geolocation

Governments in some countries are using information about the geographical location of residents to understand the spread of the virus and the extent to which quarantine rules are being respected. This information is gathered by tracking licence plates on cars, as well as GPS data from cellphones.

Countries including Thailand provide arrivals to their country with a SIM card that they must insert into their phones. This card tracks their movements for the two-week quarantine period.

The Ploughshares surveillance map

Click on image to enlarge.

We at Project Ploughshares believe that it is important to monitor and track the global use of these surveillance technologies. We have produced a map that indicates the state of such use at the beginning of June. We will continue to update the map on our website.

All citizens in countries that employ such technologies need more information about how these technologies are being used and how useful they really are from a public-health perspective. We need transparency and accountability.

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