Human history is full of disease outbreaks. Some of them lasted for days, others took years to vanish and many still persist. Diseases outbreaks keep surfacing in one part of the world or another, however, none of them have been able to attain the scale of Covid-19 in recent history. It is hardly surprising that people have been comparing Covid-19 with 1918’s deadly Spanish Flu pandemic, which left several millions dead.
On-going Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the world at unimaginable levels. It has already dwarfed 2008’s economic slowdown and being compared with WW2 crisis. Despite the stringent measures and modern healthcare, the disease has managed to infect more than 4.6 million people, leaving more than 304 thousands dead and counting. Economies are on the brink of collapse and experts have already predicted a prolonged recession.
Governments across the world have been following more or less same strategy to fight against Covid-19. Treat the infected, trace their contacts, quarantine them and contain the area. Use of biometrics and GPS to trace contacts and track coronavirus infected has emerged as an extremely helpful approach.
In our recent posts on Covid-19, we discussed countries that have stopped using biometric scanners to avoid Covid 19 and a detailed process to disinfect live scan systems and fingerprint scanners. This article is focused on fight against Covid-19 and how biometrics and GPS are being used to track coronavirus infected and enforce quarantine requirements.
Fight against Covid-19
Covid-19 continues to challenge the human ability to contain it and find a cure. Fight against Covid-19 is being fought at the expense personal liberty, economy and loss of human lives. So far, there are only a few countries that have been able to contain the spread of the disease. People continue to die of the disease and new infections nowhere seem to stop.
At the time of writing this article, worldwide death toll stood at 304 thousand with more than 4.6 million confirmed cases. United States remains the worse affected country with 87 thousand deaths and more than 1.5 million infections. Many jurisdictions are under lock-down and stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the virus.
Fight against Covid-19 is expected to continue even after lifting lock-down and stay-at-home orders.It will be hard to return to normalcy until cases returns to zero, otherwise there will always be the risk of disease’s reemergence. In early January, China was the only country with the disease and in just a couple of months, it spread across the world.
Since there is no cure, preventive measures and treatment with existing procedures are the only weapons we have against the virus.WHO has already recommended that testing and tracing should be the backbone in the fight against Covid-19. However, looking at the scale of this pandemic, testing facilities are also highly stressed. To avoid unnecessary tests, Covid-19 screening is a helpful tool to determine the risk of potential exposure and need for Covid-19 test for an individual.
Covid-19 screening / self-assessment
Covid-19 screening / self-assessment is the process of sorting individuals to evaluate the risk of Covid-19 exposure. Covid-19 screening is not Covid-19 testing that includes viral or antibody lab tests to tell if you have a current or had a past Covid-19 infection. Covid-19 screening aims to figure if someone may be at the risk of Covid-19 exposure with a series of questions about symptoms, travel history, and recent contacts with others. Covid-19 screening can help an individual determine his/her next steps over the matter.
How does Covid-19 self-assessment / screening work?
First of all, Covid-19 screening examines for any emergency situation by evaluating symptoms and their severity. If an individual is experiencing severe / constant chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing, constant light-headedness and/or serious unresponsiveness / disorientation. It is considered as an emergency and the person is taken under Covid-19 emergency care.
- Fever or chills
- New or worsening cough, specially unproductive (dry) cough
- Sore throat, mild to moderate difficulty breathing
- Loss of smell, taste or appetite
- Body ache, vomiting and diarrhoea, etc.
Individuals are also screened for any pre-existing diseases such as chronic lung disease, asthma, HIV, immune system deficiencies, heart conditions (prior hearth attack or hearth failure), diabetes, kidney failure, liver cirrhosis, etc. They are also asked if they have been taking cancer treatment or immune suppression drugs.
Recent travel history is also captured as a part of Covid-19 screening as it has a major role in spreading the infection. Individuals are also asked if they live or have visited an area where Covid-19 is widespread.
People are also asked if they work in a healthcare facility such as hospitals, long term facility, etc., as they can be at a higher risk of infection. Subjects are also screened for living in a long-term care facility such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Contact tracing is an important part of Covid-19 screening. Individuals are asked if they have been in in close contact with someone who tested positive for the disease or providing care to someone with Covid-19. This is important to know because Covid-19 spreads quickly with close contacts with an infected individual. Exposure to a sneeze / cough can have you infected if you fail to maintain at least six feet distance from the infected individual.
Contact tracing is an important activity in the fight against Covid-19. Contact tracing can not only help with monitoring spread of the infection, but also contain the infection during a contagious disease outbreak.
Contact tracing is also becomes important because infected can remain asymptotic for days. Asymptotic individuals are the biggest challenges in the coronavirus pandemic. An asymptotic infected individual can also be infectious. They unknowingly keep spreading the infection until their symptoms start showing up and this cycle keeps on going.
Contact tracing consists of sorting out the physical social network of an infected person then advising or mandating exposed people to quarantine. Contact tracing is a highly effective approach to break the chain of infection and stop the disease from spreading further.
Monitoring spread of Covid-19 with biometrics and GPS
The overwhelming scale and speed of Covid-19 spread has left policy makers searching for ways to tackle the crisis. China extensively used drones, mobile apps, and other technological means to track coronavirus infected, people on quarantine, enforce social distancing and more. The country has managed to contain the infection in a couple of months and set an example for the rest of the world. Many countries have already begun using technological means such as biometrics, GPS, drones, mobile apps, etc. to monitor spread of Covid-19.
Covid-19 first emerged in China and the country pushed extreme measures such as lockdowns and cutting Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of Covid-19, from the rest of the world to curb the pandemic. China is the first country that used coronavirus-era surveillance techniques to curb the infection.
China used a mobile app for monitoring spread of Covid-19 and it was mandatory to install it on the mobile phone if you need to move. During the lock-down, anyone entering Wuhan had to mandatorily install the app on his/her phone. Government could pinpoint the location of the individual once the app was installed.
The Chinese government also installed CCTV cameras in front of the doors of people under quarantine to make sure that they do not leave. Drones were used to spread information, making people scan bar-code at city checkpoints. Mobile app traced GPS location and showed a color based “health status”of the individual to determine how freely they can at public places. If color is green, you are free to move, however, if it is red, users have to go for a 14-day self or government facilitated quarantine.
Hong Kong, the Chinese autonomous region has taken a tech-centric approach to enforce self-quarantine requirements. Individuals who are advised to self-quarantine are required to wear an electronic wristband throughout the quarantine period, which stays connected to a smartphone app. The wristband tandem with the cellphone GPS and can track the movement of the person while he/she is on quarantine.
NHS, the United Kingdom’s government healthcare agency has launched a mobile app to enable contact tracing. Though the app claims not to use GPS or any other form of location tracing, the app asks for location permissions while using it. The UK’s data privacy rules only allow the process to be voluntary and people are showing their willingness to cooperate seeing the severity of the outbreak.
South Korea took more comprehensive approach to fight against Covid-19. The government not only used GPS location data and biometrics to trace confirmed cases, but also credit card transactions, CCTV footage’s, and other electronic data to create a monitoring and tracking systems.
The South Korean government has launched an “epidemiological investigation support system” for tracking and monitoring spread of Covid-19.
In the United States, monitoring spread of Covid-19 with GPS and biometrics based contact tracing has largely been voluntary due to privacy concerns. These efforts vary from state to state. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the public healthcare agency of the country, has created an interactive Coronavirus Self-Checker system with Microsoft’s Azure platform. U.S. Citizens can go to CDC website and take a Covid-19 screening test for themselves or someone else to determine if they need to test for the disease.
In Colorado, people who have symptoms similar to Covid-19 can voluntarily provide their mobile phone information and allow government to track their movement with GPS.
The U.S. states of North Dakota and South Dakota has released its official app to enable contact tracing with GPS. The app keeps logging the places where people have been to, which can be useful for healthcare agencies if they test positive.
Shin Bet, the state of Israel’s security agency is using GPS location data generated by mobile phones to track the whereabouts of infected citizens.
In its fight against Covid-19, Indian authorities have been using GPS location data, drones, surveillance cameras to enforce quarantine, maintain social distancing and track the location of the infected individuals. The country has launched a mobile app that shows a color code to define the freedom of movement of an individual.
Russia is also one of the countries that have been using GPS, biometrics and mobile phones to track infected and quarantined individuals. In Moscow, everyone needs to submit a reason to the authorities via the internet if they wish to go outside. Whereabouts of these individuals are tracked with their smartphone if permission is granted.
According to a report published on BBC, Russian authorities have been using biometric face recognition to keep track of people. Moscow’s city-wide surveillance camera network has been integrated with the biometric technology, which can detect an individual on quarantine if they break the quarantine rules. If the person is positively identified, the system sends an alert to the police.
Coronavirus-era surveillance: privacy and security challenge
In the fight against Covid-19, many governments around the world are using mass surveillance technologies to keep track of infected and quarantined individuals. Drones from above can track movement and temperature;face recognition equipped surveillance cameras can identify people in a public place;GPS enabled mobile apps constantly track and send location history. This authoritarian level use of surveillance technologies have been playing with the privacy of the people, and sending sensitive data to the government.
Superficially, it may seem as if government is leaving no stone un-turned to fight the pandemic. There is no question that biometric tech, drones and GPS are useful for monitoring spread of Covid-19. However, there are underlying privacy and security challenges that need to be addressed with the use of these technologies.
Countries like Russia, China, India, South Korea, etc. have been using surveillance technologies to track millions without respecting their privacy. Mobile apps, surveillance cameras, face biometrics, GPS location history generates a lot of personally identifiable information, however, lack of a privacy laws are allowing the governments to sideline the privacy and security challenges.
Many privacy advocates fear the same tools used for tracking and monitoring spread of Covid-19 could be used to discover political activity, religious affiliations, private relations, etc., which is a serious privacy and security challenge.
Several countries across the world have been under lock-down to cease the spread of Covid-19 infection that comes with human movement. It has given the governments a chance to monitor the spread of the disease, identify the hotspots and lay action plan. However, a lot of surveillance grade technologies are being used in the name of fight against Covid-19. This coronavirus-era surveillance has been helping the government to fight the disease, but putting privacy and security at risk.
Installation of CCTV cameras outside the houses of people on quarantine, continuous location tracking, drone surveillance and face recognition are indeed some extreme measures from the government side. The data generated out this can be used to track activists, journalists, political activities, personal relations and more.
Covid-19 can be a good excuse for the use of surveillance tech to watch over the people in this pandemic situation. However, it is equally important that government discontinue coronavirus-era surveillance as the pandemic ends and delete the collected data.