South Korea Tests AI-Based Facial Recognition to Track COVID-19 Cases

JAKARTA – South Korea is about to launch a pilot to use artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movements of people infected with the coronavirus, despite privacy breach concerns.

The state-funded project in Bucheon, one of the most populous cities in the country on the outskirts of Seoul, will start operations in January, a city official told Reuters.

The system uses AI algorithms and facial recognition technology to analyze the footage collected by more than 10,820 CCTV cameras and track the movements of infected people, people in close contact and whether they are wearing masks, according to a city program schedule transmitted to was the Ministry, Science and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and was presented to Reuters by project-critical MPs.

Governments around the world have turned to new technology and increased legal powers to try to contain the tide of COVID-19 infections. China, Russia, India, Poland and Japan, as well as several U.S. states, are among the governments that have introduced or at least experimented with facial recognition systems to track COVID-19 patients, according to a March report by Columbia Law School in New York. .

Bucheon officials said the system should reduce the burden on overworked tracking teams in a city of more than 800,000 residents and help make the team more efficient and accurate.

In the meantime, South Korea already has an aggressive high-tech contact tracing system that collects credit card data, cell phone location data and CCTV footage, among other things.

Illustration of COVID-19 in South Korea. (Wikimedia Commons / Piotrus)

However, it still relies on large numbers of epidemiological investigators, often working 24-hour shifts, desperately following and contacting potential cases of the coronavirus.

When applying for national funding for a pilot project in late 2020, Bucheon Mayor Jang Deog-cheon argued that such a system would speed up tracing.

“Sometimes it can take hours to analyze a single CCTV footage. The use of visual recognition technology will make this analysis possible in no time,” he said on Twitter.

The system is also designed to take into account the fact that tracking teams have to rely heavily on testimony from COVID-19 patients who are not always honest about their activities and whereabouts, the plan says.

Separately, the Ministry of Science and ICT said it currently has no plans to expand the project at the national level. The aim of the system is to digitize some of the manual work that contact tracers have to do today.

Bucheon’s system can track up to ten people at the same time in five to ten minutes, reducing the manual labor that takes about half an hour to track a single person, the plan says.

Illustration. (Unsplash / Kay Lau)

The pilot plan calls for a team of around ten public health center employees to deploy an AI-powered detection system, the official said.

Bucheon is known to have received 1.6 billion won ($ 1.36 million) from the Department of Science and ICT and contributed 500 million won from the city budget to the project to build the system, Bucheon officials said.

Human rights

Despite widespread public support for existing invasive tracking and tracing methods, human rights defenders and some South Korean lawmakers have raised concerns that the government will retain and use the data well beyond the needs of the pandemic.

“The government’s plan to become Big Brother under the pretext of COVID is a neototalitarian idea,” critic Park Dae-chul, a legislator for the largest opposition People Power Party, told Reuters.

“It is absolutely wrong to use CCTV to monitor and control the public with taxpayers’ money and without public consent,” said Park.

Meanwhile, Bucheon officials said there were no privacy concerns as the system puts a mosaic on the face of anyone who is not affected.

“There are no privacy concerns here as the system tracks confirmed patients under the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. Contact tracing adheres to these rules so there is no risk of data leakage or data breach, ”the official said.

It should be noted that the rules state that patients must give their consent to use facial recognition tracking. But if they disagree, the system can still track them based on their silhouettes and clothing, the officer said.

Meanwhile, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said the technology was legal to use as long as it was used in the area of ​​disease control and prevention laws.