Country launches AI facial-recognition surveillance to track people positive for COVID-19

People who test positive for COVID-19 in South Korea will be tracked through facial recognition and a network of surveillance cameras as part of a new artificial intelligence program, Reuters reported Monday.

The surveillance program is scheduled to start in Bucheon, a city with over 800,000 residents, in January, according to Reuters. However, some attorneys and activists who supported other tracking methods have criticized the program as an invasion of privacy and expressed concerns about its continued use after the pandemic ends.

“The government’s plan to become a Big Brother on the pretext of COVID is a neo-totalitarian idea,” People Power Party lawmaker Park Dae-chul told Reuters. “It is absolutely wrong to monitor and control the public via CCTV using taxpayers’ money and without the consent from the public.”

The program is legal as long as it’s used in compliance with disease control and prevention law the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said. Other countries including China, Russia and the U.S. have experimented with facial recognition programs for COVID-19 tracking.

A Bucheon city official said the program distorts the faces of citizens who haven’t tested positive for COVID-19, according to Reuters. Patients reportedly have to consent to their faces being tracked as part of the program or else the technology will look for their silhouette and clothing, according to the official.

“There is no privacy issue here as the system traces the confirmed patient based on the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act,” the official said. “Contact tracers stick to that rule so there is no risk of data spill or invasion of privacy.”

The government granted $1.6 billion to Bucheon city officials to construct the system for the surveillance program, according to Reuters. Around 10 people would need to oversee the program at the public health center after it’s up and running.

More than 10,800 closed-circuit cameras will be used to track COVID-19 positive people to see whether or not they were wearing masks and for contact tracing, according to the report. South Korean officials already monitor security camera footage, credit card spending records and location data derived from smartphones for contract tracing around the country.

The nationally funded artificial intelligence tracking program could help overworked epidemiological investigators who are responsible for contact tracing and notifying people of potential exposure. The program is intended to computerize some of the data collection in highly-populated areas and cut down on tracking times.

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