South Korean City Goes Big Brother with AI Facial Recognition of Covid Infected Citizens

South Korea is taking coronavirus tracking to the next level. A new pilot program that utilizes facial recognition and artificial intelligence to trace covid infected citizens will be rolled out in January.

Despite privacy concerns, AI algorithms and facial recognition technology will be harnessed to analyze footage from more than 10,820 CCTV cameras. The technology will be used to “track an infected person’s movements, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask.”

The experiment will take place in the city of Bucheon. With more than 800,000 people, it is one of the most densely populated cities on the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

Park Dae-chul is a parliamentary lawmaker from the main opposition, People Power Party, and is critical about the project. He provided Reuters with the 110-page business plan submitted to the Ministry of Science and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) by the city.

He told the news outlet:

“The government’s plan to become a Big Brother on the pretext of COVID is a neo-totalitarian idea. It is absolutely wrong to monitor and control the public via CCTV using taxpayers’ money and without the consent from the public.”

The city claims that the new program will reduce the pressure on overworked tracing teams and use the teams more efficiently and accurately.

Concerns about the invasion of privacy were also addressed by a city official who confirmed that the system traces only established patients while censoring non-target individuals. Patients must give their consent for the program to track them. 

But Dae-chul says that people can still be tracked by their silhouette and clothes. 

An aggressive, high-tech contact tracing system is already in place in South Korea that harvests credit card records, cell phone location data, and CCTV footage, among other personal information.

The new system will dramatically increase the amount of data processed. The current manual system takes 30 minutes to an hour to trace one person. The high-tech system will reduce that time to about one minute per person or less. The system can track up to 10 people in five to ten minutes.

The Ministry of Science and ICT claims there are no current plans to expand the project to the national level. The purpose is simply to “digitize some of the manual labor that contact tracers currently have to carry out.”

Bucheon received 1.6 billion won ($1.36 million) from the Ministry of Science and ICT. From that money, 500 million won (approximately $422,000) was put toward the project.

South Korea isn’t the only country to tango with facial recognition amidst privacy concerns. 

Reuters reported that a March report by Columbia Law School in New York stated that “China, Russia, India, Poland, and Japan as well as several U.S. states are among the governments to have rolled out or at least experimented with facial recognition systems for tracking COVID-19 patients.”

In March 2020, Washington state passed legislation that requires any state or local government agency that intends to use a facial recognition service to file a notice of intent for the service. A purpose for using technology must be specified, among other stipulations.

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