“Big Brother” against coronavirus – or perhaps on occasion?


South Korea will soon launch an ambitious pilot program, which will make extensive use of artificial intelligence, software face recognition, and thousands of cameras on the streets and other points in order to record the movements of people infected with the coronavirus and their close contacts.

The design, somewhat reminiscent of Orwellian “Big Brother”, has raised concerns about possible invasion of privacy citizens, but the South Korean government considers that in a pandemic this is “justified for public health reasons”.

The project, developed by the Ministry of Science & Information Technology and Communications in collaboration with the local government, will begin in January in a densely populated city (Bucheon) near the capital Seoul. The system will use artificial intelligence algorithms and face analysis technology from videos that will have almost collected 11,000 cameras, in order to track the movements of a person infected with coronavirus and anyone who comes in close contact with him, as well as whether they wear a mask or not.

And other governments During the pandemic, new technologies were deployed to limit the spread of Covid-19. China, Russia, India, Poland, Japan and several US states have adopted such programs or experimented with digital face recognition and digital tracking programs.

According to a South Korean Bucheon official, the goal of the new system is to reduce the burden on overburdened tracking teams of people diagnosed with or suspecting Covid-19 infection in a city of more than 800,000, and to help these teams do their job faster and more accurately.

The system can simultaneously track up to ten people in five to ten minutes, when the corresponding work by human trackers for a single person requires almost an hour. The “smart” system, funded for its development with approx two million dollars, will be staffed by a team of about ten employees who will be located in a public health center.

South Korea generally has an aggressive high-tech contact tracking system that collects and evaluates credit card information, data mobile location telephones, video cameras and other personal information. However, so far he continues to depend on a large number of epidemiological researchers, who often work in 24-hour shifts, recording every possible case and his contacts.

As the mayor of Bucheon said on Twitter, asking for national funding to implement the pilot program in his city from the beginning of 2022, “sometimes it takes hours to analyze a single video of a camera. But the use of optical recognition technology will allow this analysis to be done instantly “.

The system is also designed to catch Covid-19 patients lying to tracking teams about where they are, who they are seeing and what they are doing.

However, the Ministry of Science and Information Technology and Communications stated that at present it has no plans to expand the pilot program nationally and, in an attempt to “lower” the issue, stated that the aim of the new system is simply to do to some extent digital the work required by human trackers.

In general, South Korean society shows high acceptance rates for such monitoring / tracking programs (contrary to what would be expected in a European country), but there are still some human rights activists – lawyers, MPs and activists – who have expressed concerns, including that the government collected data far beyond the needs of the pandemic.

Opposition leader Park Dae-chul said in a statement that “the government’s plan is to become a Big Brother with under the guise of Covid is a neo-totalitarian idea. It is completely wrong to monitor and control the public through cameras using taxpayers’ money and in fact without consent of the public”.

A Bucheon City Council spokesman said there was no question of a privacy breach, as the system automatically blurs the faces of anyone who is not under investigation. The Korean Office for Disease Control and Prevention said the use of the new system is legal if it is used under the National Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act.


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