How Are Technologies Used to Fight Against COVID-19? How Secure Are They?

Four months into the outbreak, COVID-19 shows no sign of dying down. As of today, it has infected more than 2.73 million (equivalent to the population of Chicago), and killed more than 190,000 people. Compared to the last major coronavirus outbreak of SARS in 2003, the current numbers are already more than 20 times higher and are only expected to worsen.

Nevertheless, there is a reason to be hopeful. Despite the horrific spreading speed and severity of the virus, our response has also significantly changed compared to that 20 years ago. With the help of technology, we have started to see some countries successfully reducing their rate of infection, some even having it under complete control.

Here we take a look at how technologies are used in different areas to fight against the virus.




Big data has made it possible to make highly accurate predictions on the spread of the virus. As the virus began to spread outside China in January, research institutions around the world started developing sophisticated multivariate models to make forecasts based on each possible situation. For instance, researchers at Imperial College London have forecasted in late March that the outbreak could lead to a total of 40 million deaths in 2020 alone if no preventative measures are taken. This is a death toll equivalent to the entire population of California (Imperial College London).

Others have made economic forecasts. Oxford Economics published a report expecting the world GDP to shrink by 7% in the first half of 2020, and 2.8% in 2020 overall. This is more than two times worse than the aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis, where the global economy shrunk by 1.1% (Oxford Economics).

Even though forecasts are constantly changing due to changes in their independent variables, governments and healthcare providers can still use these forecasts to plan ahead based on the most likely scenario and the worst-case scenario.


Disease care


The current situation in many countries makes eliminating the virus seem impossible in the short run. Therefore, the primary goal right now is to slow down the rate of new infections and at least prevent the healthcare system from being flooded. 

Of course, having every patient admitted to the hospital would be ideal, but is rather infeasible under the current situation. Take the case of Canada, for example, the government has allowed doctors to claim medical expenses on remote care and online consultation, something that was not possible back in 2003 due to a lack of online services. This way, patients with light symptoms can cure at home with remote help. Compared to 2003 where 251 cases of SARS paralyzed all Toronto hospitals, today, despite having more than 3,000 cases in the city, hospitals remain functioning properly (Reuters).

We have also seen a surge in businesses that offer remote healthcare solutions with the help of internet-of-medical-things (IoMT) devices. Other than providing consultation through video chat, IoMT devices allow real-time data sharing on the patient’s health indicators. For instance, medical startup Avidhrt has developed an all-in-one device that tests one’s body temperature, heartbeat rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure altogether. With such body parameters readily available, doctors can easily manage their patients remotely.


Disease tracing and information sharing


To prevent the disease from spreading, governments and businesses are working together on developing new services to offer real-time information on the virus. 

The South Korean government sends out emergency text messages to provide updates on local outbreaks and places to avoid (BBC). Taiwan’s government has worked with private firms to develop a mobile app that provides real-time information on the number of masks available at every designated seller (Taiwan News).

Singapore launched a disease contact tracking app called “TraceTogether” on March 20. The app uses Bluetooth to detect surroundings and inform people if they had come into contact with an infected person (Quartz). Apple and Google also announced in mid-April that they would be working together to build a similar platform (TechCrunch).

However, tracing the spread of the disease and sharing information in real-time is not as easy as making a few mobile apps. The underlying mechanism behind the system is extremely sophisticated and controversial. When we say tracing the disease, we are really talking about tracing the potential disease carriers, who happen to be humans. Thus, collecting sensitive data on people’s daily activities becomes inevitable, bringing it to a matter of surveillance.


Disease surveillance


This is perhaps the most controversial topic surrounding the use of technology. Surveillance is often viewed as contradictory to privacy, and frequently associated with freedom suppression. Indeed, privacy is a legitimate concern. Those in support of surveillance argue that if you are a law-abiding citizen, why worry about being watched? However, those who are against it have another perspective – in the long run, without people breaking the law and challenging the rules, laws would never change and progress would not be possible. Remember that many of the freedoms we enjoy today were illegal hundreds of years ago, had there been sophisticated surveillance technology back then, would we still have made such progress?

Let’s leave the argument for another day. Despite these concerns, several countries have decided to put privacy aside and focus on the paramount goal of saving lives. Some started to use surveillance technology to track the movement of people who are potentially infected, and trace back the activities of those who have been diagnosed. Among them, China and South Korea are deploying some of the most sophisticated tracking systems. Other countries including Israel, Singapore, the United States, Brazil, and Australia are also preparing to deploy disease tracing technologies.

China has one of the most advanced surveillance systems in the world, but also criticized as being highly intrusive to privacy. Before the virus even hit, over 200 million CCTV cameras with facial recognition capabilities had already been installed on Chinese streets as part of the mass surveillance project called “Skynet”. The Chinese government had been using these intelligent cameras for the detection of crime and uncivil behavior. 

As the coronavirus began to spread, the Skynet system quickly got applied as a means of disease control. Smart CCTV cameras are used to detect those in public without a mask and those who violate social distancing rules. They are even used to identify those who cough and quarantine them.

The government also uses Alipay or WeChat Pay location data to map each person’s travel history. They would then assign a health-risk score for the person depending on the intensity of social contact and closeness to outbreak hotspots.

Since the Chinese government cannot extend the Skynet project to Hong Kong, it is using a more traditional approach in the semi-autonomous territory. It forces all people who are quarantined to wear a wristband that is equipped with a built-in location tracker. If the person leaves their home or removes the wristband, an alarm would be sent immediately to healthcare officials, who would then issue a heavy fine.

South Korea’s tactics are very similar to that of China. By keeping track of potentially infected people using mobile location data, transaction data, and CCTV footage, the country has prevented multiple regional outbreaks from spreading. What’s different from China is that South Korea’s approach is more open and transparent, with clear laws that define the criteria of who to trace and how to trace.


The resistance to disease surveillance

So far, surveillance measures of such intensity have only been successfully implemented in China and South Korea, for different reasons – one uses authoritarian power, while the other has a culture of putting national safety over individual concerns.

Most other countries are having difficulties applying these measures due to privacy concerns. Many people just won’t trust their government handling their location data. 

Potential misuse of the data by the government is only one risk, another bigger risk comes from external attacks. Thus it is important to ensure that all collected location data are either pseudonymized or anonymized, meaning it would not reveal the actual identity of the data generator. However, nothing is 100% safe. A highly capable hacker could still crack the anonymized longitudinal data in a process called hash-cracking.

After Singapore launched its contact tracking app, “TraceTogether”, only one-fifth of its population have chosen to download the app. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that privacy is an unavoidable concern, but urges the public to weigh these against the benefit of clearing the virus. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also urged all citizens to put their privacy concerns aside and to download their newly developed tracing app. In order to increase participation, he described downloading the app as a matter of national service, comparing it to the time of World War II.


Finding the balance between public safety and personal privacy

Using surveillance to ensure public safety has always been controversial. On the one hand, surveillance allows law enforcement to detect public threats immediately and prevent harmful activities. On the other hand, surveillance enables the government to access personally identifiable information, even with proper encryption and security measures, they could still be potentially hacked and exposed. 

According to CNBC’s report, security experts acknowledge the effectiveness of tracking and surveillance technologies on containing the virus, but also warn that preventative measures to protect users’ privacy must be taken for the long run.

[Penta Security’s MyDiamo is an open-source database encryption module that is currently deployed in many hospitals in Europe, protecting sensitive patient information. Learn more at: MyDiamo.]


Sources: ZDNet, CNBC


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