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Big Brother is bigger than you think

One of the over 10,000 security cameras in Bucheon, South Korea, used to track people who have got Covid -19 infection. Image credit: Sacha T’Sas/Unsplash

In 1949 Orwell described a society where people were under surveillance by telecameras placed everywhere, controlled by a Big Brother. The novel was 1984, We are in 2021 and the technology imagined by Orwell is deployed in many places around the world. We just don’t notice it: security cameras have become an integral part of the landscape and they pick up our whereabouts hundreds of times every single day.

It is not necessarily a bad thing. They foster a more secure environment making our life safer.

In South Korea the city of Bucheon is getting ready to use the 10,000+ security cameras in the urban area to track people who have been tested positive to Covid-19 to detect possible contagion risks to other people. The tracing will be made using facial recognition.
My understanding, reading the news on this, is that once you are found to be positive to Covid-19 your face is scanned and the digital copy is used to search the records of the thousands of cameras around the city to see where you have been and whom yo have been in close proximity.

To work, as the municipality and Government is sure it will, the security cameras shall store the recording of the video streams for at least a week and should make these streams searchable from remote. In addition, the “big brother” should be able to recognise both you AND those you have been in proximity. Hence, a quite general face recognition should be in place. It is not really difficult since in many Countries, Italy for sure, your face is scanned and the digital image associated to your identity card and passport (plus driving licence and a few more…). The data are all there … somewhere. What the Bucheon trial wants to do is to demonstrate that all these data can be harvested and correlated.

The privacy issue has been addressed by the South Korean Government by stating that the “goal justifies the means”, i.e. privacy has a lower value than societal benefit, hence they have blessed (and actually funded) the trial.

It should also be noted that face recognition to detect possible contagion risk is already being used in China and Japan and this is seen positively by the population, as an effective way to curb the spreading of the virus.

To be honest, I should say that it wouldn’t bother me if such a system would be used in Italy as well, if I were traced in my movement so that if I get exposed to a potential contagion I can get a warning. I would consider that a valuable service, but of course, I can understand that different people may have a quite different view on the matter.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.