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Contact-tracing technology in the fight against COVID-19

Stigmer Kukic Kristoffer Goran / No Comments Share:
A volunteer scans the QR code for health check of a resident at a community in Fengman District of Jilin City, northeast China's Jilin Province, May 17, 2020. (Xinhua/Yan Linyun)

The spread of COVID-19 has forced governments worldwide to adopt a range of different policies to combat this unprecedented phenomenon, with the main arguments of Coronavirus policies being complete lockdown versus herd immunity. Many countries have also declared a state of emergency, as a result of the pandemic declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, empowering governments to impose policies or laws that would usually not be permitted. The effectiveness and success of government-implemented policies will only be shown with time.

Technology has and will be a crucial tool for governments in the fight against COVID-19, especially in countries such as China, Singapore or South Korea, by assisting public authorities in their containment policies and helping healthcare organisations to disseminate information to citizens related to the virus (self-diagnosis questionnaires or prevention methods), send warnings to individuals that could have potentially been exposed to the virus and the monitoring and enforcement of quarantine measures. Mobile applications, CCTV cameras, drones, location tracking, smart imaging and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have all been utilised to combat the disease. Although mass surveillance may have been decried in some societies, others have accepted it for the collective benefit of their society and community. Given the increasing accessibility to smart-phones, mobile phone applications have been a popular tool in the fight against the virus, to the extent that states have coordinated with the private sector in developing tracing mechanisms, through syndromic surveillance and contact tracing – that utilise technology to track the spread of the disease and interactions among individuals.

Companies and platforms such as Google, Alipay, Apple and WeChat have all developed tools to assist governments in tracking the virus and allow users and citizens to practise more effective and directed social distancing measures. However, these tools require governments and companies to track citizens using cellular signal – predominantly Bluetooth. Using Bluetooth technology allows for the applications to measure and determine the distance between smartphones and subsequently conclude whether the users were close enough to one another to transmit the virus, ultimately informing them whether they should quarantine themselves or seek testing. This method of “contact tracing” can therefore reduce the stress on public healthcare systems by preventing citizens from straining available medical resources that they may not require. Additionally, this kind of technology is more efficient and far less labour intensive than traditional methods of contact tracing, which require public health workers to interact with people potentially infected with the virus, to learn about their movements and interactions, in order to trace the chain of interactions and contact these individuals.

Contact tracing in the form of technological applications, could be very effective if designed well, in the context of the local epidemic situation. All nations have different economic, demographic, and cultural characteristics that influence their adoption of new technologies and how the applications should be catered to them. There are several advantages of a contact tracing application such as: relatively fast deployment, automatic and manual position tracing, efficient symptom surveys for employees, and 2nd- and 3rd-degree tracing. The aforementioned features will allow for the visualisation of the location of self-isolating employees and high-risk areas. Furthermore, this interactive application makes responding to the safety of employees and customers in real-time possible.

There is additional pressure on governments that have imposed lockdown measures because of the economic impact of these policies, because in many countries non-essential businesses had to close for the duration of the imposed lockdown. Continuing development of contact tracing methods and applications could play a crucial role, once lockdown measures are relaxed, by helping governments monitor activities of people as they go back to work, which could help contain a potential resurgence of the virus and impose effective de-escalation strategies. Additionally, providing authorities with location data could be crucial in adopting more targeted lockdown strategies and avoiding complete lockdown, thereby allowing citizens to access more businesses or public places, by making informed decisions based on the likelihood of transmission if access to these was provided. Consequentially, it would allow authorities to determine which establishments or public places need more stringent social-distancing measures and which ones are not risk-prone.

Because these applications may raise some data privacy issues, the advantages of contact tracing digital technology should be properly explained to the public. Public health policies should cautiously keep a balance between the right to data privacy and the necessity for establishing a clear public safety policy in case of a deadly pandemic.

Additionally, policy makers need to address issues related to cybersecurity in order to prevent the leakage of personal data on the internet, to avoid the spread of misinformation and fake news that can disrupt government efforts to control the pandemic. Providing information to other citizens about patients can be hugely problematic because it not only breaches medical confidentiality but also has the potential to fuel stigma towards diagnosed patients. For this reason, coordination between the private sector and government is paramount in order to bolster cybersecurity measures. In states of emergency, governments have a duty and obligation towards their citizens in guaranteeing public health using necessary means to combat the pandemic. However, governments need to ensure that measures taken are necessary, proportionate, transparent and limited to a certain time-period in order to avoid the misuse of surveillance technologies that could potentially affect the contemporary narrative on data privacy rights.

With the potential risks of data privacy discussed, the utilisation of emerging surveillance technologies in the form of contact tracing could still be largely beneficial. However, balancing these risks and benefits based on sound evidence is essential. Many of our technological applications and social media platforms already monitor our live locations and keep track of our private information. Technology will always have two sides. Perhaps extreme circumstances such as a pandemic will push us to take these risks. If we do not try, we will never move forward.

Stigmer Kukic Kristoffer Goran is a research fellow at the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI). This article was originally published via the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy of the AVI

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