Gov in the Time of Corona

By Amit Roy Choudhury

Governments have been reluctant to unveil their ability to keep track of citizens. That’s changed in the fight against the coronavirus.

As governments around the world scramble to contain the coronavirus pandemic they are increasingly turning to technology. Facial recognition, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics, among others, are being used to keep track of those infected and for what is known as contact tracing – that is trying to figure out the number of people who came into contact with an infected patient before isolation protocols were applied.

Many of these rather intrusive technologies have faced a lot of societal resistance, particularly in the West due to privacy concerns. Elsewhere, AI and big data analytics are also helping researchers who are scrambling to develop a vaccine.

The human cost of the tragedy will be unimaginable and this pandemic could be one of the defining moments of this century. And this is not taking into account the economic cost which this pandemic, named Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is already imposing on the global economy. Stock markets have plunged, supply chains have broken down as entire regions and countries go under lockdown.

The economic devastation over the medium term is likely to be worse than that of the 2008 financial crisis, which led to economic recession in several countries. However, what is being less discussed is that this crisis may bring about a major change in societal attitudes towards the use of technology by the government – a traditional area of distrust among the public.

Lifting the veil

Most governments have access to technologies that allow them to monitor their citizens – where they go, whom they meet, what they are doing and so on. Biometric enabled tracking is quite easy not only for state authorities but also for many private sector companies. However, these capabilities have, till now, been kept away from public scrutiny, at least in democratic societies.

Ironically these very same technologies have become the most effective tools in the hands of governments as they battle to contain the contagion. The wraps over them have been taken off so to speak and the public is not complaining.

At the height of the ground zero coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government used AI-linked facial recognition cameras to keep track of pedestrians who were out on the roads. The images were used not only to match data with those who were put under mandatory quarantine but also to remotely check body temperature to determine if anyone on the road was running the risk of infection.

Social media was also filled with pictures of drones monitoring residential blocks to ensure all people stayed indoors.

China has not been alone to use surveillance technology to keep track of their citizens in this crisis. A recent Wall Street Journal story says state governments in the US are considering using facial recognition technology developed by a start-up, Clearview A.I. for contact tracing.

No decision has yet been taken but the company’s technology had previously sparked a controversy among privacy advocates over its use by police departments in the US. There is unlikely to be the same opposition if the various states in the US want to use the tech in the fight against Covid-19.

Taiwan, despite its close proximity to China and with hundreds of thousands of its nationals working and living on the mainland has done remarkably well to protect itself from Covid-19 with 100 reported cases and 1 death as of March 19th. As Stanford University states, Taiwan has been using big data, transparency and a central command to protect itself from the coronavirus.

Among the various measures that the country took, one of the most important was the integration of the national health insurance database with its immigration and customs data base in order a meaningful dataset for big data analytics. The database links travel history with clinical symptoms.

For example if a patient goes to a clinic with fever or any other trigger symptom for potential Covid-19 infection, the system will immediately alert doctors if the patient has a travel history to China or any other affected country since the immigration database is linked. This allows for immediate steps being taken even before test for infection.

Monitor us more

In South Korea, where initially the infections spun out of control, the government has been able to slow down the pandemic by using aggressive tracking tools.

For example, the government has released a smart phone app which can track self-quarantine subjects to ensure that they do not leave their homes and maintain strict separation from other people, including family members. Those under quarantine can use the app to report their symptoms, and provide status updates to officials.

Similarly, Israel is using mobile phone data to track the movements of those who have tested positive for the virus and to identify those who need to be quarantined. There are numerous other examples from different countries.

Some commentators have framed the discussion on the basis of authoritarian vs democratic systems. For example, so the argument goes, China has been able to slow down the initial outbreak, despite massive loss of lives, due to iron handed measures like lockdowns and coercive surveillance to ensure adequate social distancing.

The rhetorical question that is being asked is: “Can the use of such technology to monitor citizens be permissible in a democratic society or even if it is used is it morally the right thing to do?”

Using tech for good

In the present circumstances this may be a wrong line of thinking. Technology by itself is neither good nor evil. That factor comes into play based on the humans who use the technology and what their intentions are.

As the examples of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore show, it is possible to use AI, facial recognition, mobile phone tracking and other technologies in a transparent and ethical manner to solve specific problems.

As South Korea’s Vice Health Minister, Kim Gang-lip told journalists recently it is possible to design creative applications of advanced technology without harming the principle of a transparent and open society with voluntary public participation.

Technology is not just being used for contact tracing and to keep tabs on infected patients. It is being used in a myriad of different and innovative ways.

One of the few bright spots over the past three months has been stories of innovation and ingenuity to combat Covid-19. These include the race to isolate the virus and fast track a vaccination for it.

In Singapore, GovTech has developed an automated temperature scanner which reduces the risk of infection for medical personnel. GovTech has also developed a website to inform Singaporean residents about where to collect face masks and also a chatbot for firms which want more information about what kind of government help is available.

In Italy, a small start-up company used additive manufacturing (3D printing) to produce values when a hospital in Brescia – one of the worst affected areas in Italy – ran out of valves for its ventilator machines and the original equipment supplier could not provide replacements in time due to a broken supply chain. The replica 3D printed values were produced literally overnight and were used to save many lives.

The interesting part of this news is the sheer disruptive potential of technologies like 3D printing. According to a media report the cost of these valves is US$11,000. The cost of the 3D printed replica, which works just as well, is US$1. It is reported that the medical device manufacturer has threatened to sue the small start-up for infringing the patent. If this information is accurate the difference in manufacturing price makes you want to scratch your head about the absurdity of it all.

Commentators, including this writer, have been writing reams about how advanced technology has ensured that digital disruption has become the norm for companies irrespective of size or vertical.

In the aftermath of Covid-19 it is quite possible that technology will disrupt societal norms as well. The hope is humanity will emerge from this pandemic more resilient, wiser and hopefully more technology savvy.

Amit Roy Choudhury, a media consultant, and senior journalist, writes about technology for GovInsider.