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  • Kyle Chua

South Korea Testing AI-Powered Facial Recognition System To Track People With COVID-19

South Korea is planning to employ the help of modern technology to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The country will soon implement a pilot project that uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to track the movement and whereabouts of people infected with COVID-19.

Credit: SeongJoon Cho via The New Yorker

According to Reuters, the national project is set to go into operation in Bucheon, a densely populated satellite city of Seoul, by January 2022.

The system will track where infected people have been, who they have had contact with and whether they were wearing masks by having an algorithm and facial recognition software analyse footage recorded by over 10,820 CCTV cameras around the city. Costing about 500 million won to develop, it's reportedly capable of simultaneously tracking up to ten people within the span of five to 10 minutes.

Seoul expects this new contact-tracing system to make finding and tracking potential cases a lot faster versus the one currently in use, which involves pulling citizens’ credit card records and cellphone location data, among other personal information, to monitor activity. It’ll also help reduce strain on the already overworked contact tracing teams.

"It sometimes takes hours to analyse a single CCTV footage. Using visual recognition technology will enable that analysis in an instant," said Bucheon Mayor Jang Deog-Cheon.

Using technology can also help get around the problem of citizens not being truthful about the contact-tracing-related information they share with authorities.

But even with the new system in place, Bucheon will still need a large number of epidemiological investigators to contact people who have been infected. The difference is that a lot of the legwork is now automated.

The Ministry of Science and ICT noted that, as of right now, there are no plans to bring the system outside of Bucheon.

South Korean research team developing artificial intelligence CCTV system for law enforcement. Credit: Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute via The Korea Bizwire

Not everyone, however, is in favour of rolling out the new system, with some human rights activists and lawmakers voicing privacy concerns and the possible misuse of sensitive data.

"The government's plan to become a Big Brother on the pretext of COVID is a neo-totalitarian idea," said lawmaker Park Dae-chul. "It is absolutely wrong to monitor and control the public via CCTV using taxpayers' money and without the consent from the public."

A Bucheon official argued that citizens need not worry about privacy, with the system only tracking confirmed patients based on the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency also said that, from a legal standpoint, there is nothing wrong with using technology for the purposes of disease control and prevention.

Other countries like China, Russia, India and Japan, to name a few, have similarly turned to facial recognition systems for contact tracing.

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