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Pandemic surveillance: Is tracing tech here to stay?

The two-year fight against Covid-19 has turned technology into a weapon of choice to defeat the virus but experts now worry that tech will outlive the pandemic and normalise mass surveillance.

From contact tracing apps to facial recognition, technology has become part of the arsenal used to protect public health.

While this might have helped save lives, rights advocates say intrusive solutions could already be so entrenched that personal privacy is the long-term price many people may yet pay.

“Once a big system is introduced into a society, it is difficult to fundamentally fix it, even if a problem is found afterwards,” said Chang Yeo-Kyung executive director of South Korea’s Institute for Digital Rights.

The country has largely been a Covid-19 success story, partially thanks to aggressive testing and tracing.

This year, as cases of the highly infectious but less deadly Omicron variant surged, it scrapped contact tracing and mandatory isolation for vaccinated people in favour of self diagnosis and at-home treatment to free up medical resources.

Yet, in December, it announced a nationally-funded pilot to use artificial intelligence, facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movement of infected people – a move that raised privacy concerns.

The project was set to start in January in Bucheon, one of the country’s most densely populated cities on the outskirts of Seoul, but it has reportedly suffered delays.

“There are concerns that surveillance will become a ‘new normal’ for our society after Covid-19,” Chang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.

For example, he said people have already grown accustomed to showing proof of identity before entering a venue.

Government, too, has stretched boundaries, Chang said, in one instance using cell towers to identify thousands of people at a given location – then encountering only meek resistance. Deccan Herald

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