March 11, 2020

Asian countries leaning on cutting-edge technology for prevention.

Governments around the world are scrambling to react to the growing threat of COVID-19. While it’s drawn frequent comparisons to the SARS outbreak of 2003, much has changed in the last 17 years, especially when it comes to data. In turn, new methodologies are being used to combat the coronavirus, with implications that are both exciting and scary.

Big data and AI are on the frontlines of the battle, especially in Asian countries like China and South Korea– who are at the epicenter of the outbreak. The governments of these countries have been employing next-gen technologies in hopes of tracking and containing the disease.

In China, officials have employed a massive surveillance strategy of unprecedented scale. There are over 300 million surveillance cameras in China, and authorities have been using them to monitor citizens and identify potential risks during the outbreak. Many of these cameras are equipped with facial recognition technology. Combined with data from hospital records and public transportation history, Chinese officials have been able to use this data to reconstruct maps of the times and locations of where the infected have been. From there, they can issue warnings to citizens that may have come in contact with the infected.

All of this granular big data is tied back to each Chinese citizen’s national ID. Further utilizing the technology available, Chinese officials have developed a mobile “Close Contact Detector” app with a database of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. All you have to do is download the app, enter your name and national ID, and the app can instantly match your location data history with those who have been infected, and let you know if you’ve crossed paths with anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

On one hand, it’s a brilliant and beautiful use of technology in the midst of a massive public health crisis. On the other it’s more than a little terrifying. Trying to survive a pandemic in a superpanopticon seems like a dystopic nightmare ripped straight from the pages of George Orwell.

As of Monday, there have been over 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 3,100 deaths in the country, so one could easily argue that it’s a necessary measure.

In South Korea, who has the 2nd most COVID-19 infections behind China, we can see how similar efforts play out in a democracy. While China looks more like Big Brother, South Korea looks more like law enforcement cracking a case. Korean officials have been utilizing CCTV footage, mobile phone records and credit card histories to recreate the travel histories of the infected.

The South Korean government has been offering about 15,000 free screenings per day for the virus. If patients test positive, they do remain anonymous, and they are notified that the information about their location history is being shared, but there’s no opting out of the information being made public.

That being said, the efforts may be starting to pay off. Over the last week, the number of new infections in South Korea has been trending steadily downward. On Monday, the country posted just 131 new cases of coronavirus, the lowest daily total the country has seen in weeks.

“Detecting patients at an early stage is very important and we learned the simple lessons by dealing with this virus that this is very contagious — and once it starts, it spreads very quickly and in very wide areas,” South Korean Health Minister Park Neunghoo Park said in a CNN interview. “Raising the testing capability is very important because that way, you can detect someone who’s carrying the virus, then you can contain the virus.”

Let’s hope, with the help of big data and AI, that trend continues.

What do you think about China and South Korea’s use of big data and AI to combat coronavirus? Do you feel their use of personal data to combat the epidemic is ethical, or an invasion of privacy? How do you feel about South Korea’s approach vs. China’s approach? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Sound off on social media now and join the conversation.