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Ways smartphone apps and travel history trackers helped South Korea handle its initial outbreak of Covid-19

by Josef Kafka

A major privacy issue that’s been highlighted still further by the coronavirus crisis relates to state surveillance and the use of smartphones.

How smartphones can be used to track and contain disease

Smart devices have been used to fight disease by tracking individuals since the 2007 malaria epidemic on the African island of Zanzibar. Mobile network providers, the World Health Organisation, and academics worked together to track the movements of individuals within Zanzibar and also monitor the spread of malaria to mainland Africa.

A similar smartphone tracking system was used to control and contain the spread of Ebola in Western Africa. However, privacy and data use concerns are major concerns for many, both within government and also private individuals. Despite evidence that smartphone tracking can successfully track individuals and flag up the contacts who could go on to develop similar, severe conditions, surveillance of this nature is perceived to be an invasion of privacy.

To date, South Korea has proved to be one of the most successful nations when it comes to containing and fighting the Covid-19 virus. However, this success is not without its critics, and during the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak in South Korea extensive use of contact tracing included texting out detailed information about local individuals diagnosed with coronavirus and their recent movements.

How does South Korea’s Covid-19 tracking and alerts system work?

The Co100 app was launched by South Korea’s central and local governments on 11 February 2020, giving all registered individuals real-time text message alerts and online data about numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases within city locations, alongside the Coronamap website which provided travel histories of people infected with the virus (https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/south-korea-to-step-up-online-coronavirus-tracking-5109).

An additional feature of the Co100 app enabled individuals to keep in touch with their caseworkers during quarantine periods. However, it also enabled tracking to ensure people were not breaking their period of self-quarantine.

The app alerts all registered members of the public whenever they go within 100 metres of locations visited by infected individuals. Within the first ten days of launch, the Co100 app was downloaded over one million times. It was available on the government’s website, along with a statement to the effect that it: “allows users to conveniently avoid potentially dangerous locations without checking the travel histories of those infected.”

Why is South Korean use of smartphone tracking for coronavirus a privacy concern?

Although the text data about individuals with coronavirus was anonymous, it was often possible for locals to identify these people because of the high level of detail provided.

The way in which South Korea reported on individuals diagnosed with Covid-19, and the detailed data subsequently sent out to track the movements of these people was certainly far more extensive than previously seen. The South Korean authorities based their action on experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2015, and legislation was already in place to enable the publication of this sort of data.

What were the primary concerns about human rights and privacy infringements in South Korea?

The principal issue relative to apps and websites of this nature is whether the rights of the individual trump those of the public good. In the view of most South Koreans, the rights of members of the public should be of more concern than the rights of individuals diagnosed with conditions such as coronavirus.

Provision of such detailed information did enable people living close to infected individuals to see where they’d been in the days leading up to positive diagnosis, and this caused a good deal of unwarranted public speculation. The comprehensive data provided by Co100 included credit card transaction history and CCTV footage. Of course, this level of information did enable some infected individuals to be identified, and discussions about visits to love motels and whether infected individuals were having affairs became commonplace on social media (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-51733145).

The social stigma caused by intense tracking and public speculation are major concerns for many South Koreans, to such an extent that some individuals displaying symptoms may have opted to avoid testing (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00740-y)

Ways smartphone tracking assisted South Korea to control the initial Covid-19 outbreak

The use of the Co100 app and coronavirus mapping sites helped South Korea deal successfully with its initial outbreak of coronavirus, however, new cases are still being flagged and infection hotspots could still develop. The South Korean authorities believe their transparency during the initial severe outbreak engendered greater levels of public trust and allowed them to track and control the epidemic (https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987).

What about other countries using apps to track coronavirus?

Many other countries are using smartphone tracking and public coronavirus apps for mapping the virus and to alert individuals about infections in their locality. This list includes Singapore, China, Israel, and Germany, and is presently under discussion in the UK.

To date, no other country has gone quite so far as South Korea when it comes to the detailed provision of information, however, media scrutiny of the UK’s planned app over the Easter weekend did highlight that government discussions of smartphone tracking did potentially entail the use of de-anonymised data (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/nhs-coronavirus-app-memo-discussed-giving-ministers-power-to-de-anonymise-users). We’ll take a more detailed look at the coronavirus tracking in Europe and plans for the UK in one of our next blogs.

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