Global cases of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus surpassed 230,000 today. As President Trump signs an $8.3 billion emergency aid package, the head of the WHO said that this is “a time for pulling out all the stops.” New cases are popping up around the globe, however they’re declining in China, where the outbreak first occurred. Now, we need to take a look at how AI and big data are impacting the spread of the virus. Let’s take a look at Covid-19, facial recognition, and the future of privacy. 

Assessing Chinese action

According to a report WHO compiled and released in February, AI and big data have played a major role in China’s response to the Coronavirus. The report found that swift action from the Chinese government, to limit travel and quarantine its population, potentially stopped hundreds of thousands of infections from emerging. Still, many have criticized these measures as being draconian.  

Although it’s not clear to what extent facial recognition played in enforcing public safety, a coauthor of the report told Science that China is targeting Covid-19 through “good old social distancing and quarantining, very effectively done because of that on-the-ground machinery at the neighborhood level facilitated by AI and big data.”

China quarantined more than 50 million citizens in cities like Beijing and Wuhan, and used social medias like WeChat and Alipay to track their movements, and stop infected people from traveling. They also used facial recognition and thermal sensors in helmets and drones. 

If quarantine measures implemented globally are not properly carried out, millions of people could die. Still, that doesn’t mean that we should throw human rights and civil liberties away. When it comes to Covid-19, facial recognition, and the future of privacy, we need to be very careful. 

Surveillance measures implemented 

Aside from Covid-19, other news stories this week also detailed the rush of companies peddling AI surveillance tech to businesses, governments, and law enforcement. 

Wolfcom is selling live facial recognition body cams to law enforcement, of which 1,500 have been sold to date. Clearview AI made its facial recognition mechanism from 3 billion images gathered from Facebook and Google without permission. Now, they’re trying to get hold of mugshots from the last 15 years. A data breach recently revealed their list of 2,000 customers, which included major companies and law enforcement agencies. 

Covid-19, facial recognition, and the future of privacy

This technology is already being used to surveil citizens in China, following the outbreak, and it will likely spread elsewhere. It’s now clear that Covid-19 will have a far-reaching impact, beyond the walls of our health systems. But is our safety worth mass surveillance? Not according to Brian Hofer, Chair of the Privacy Commission in Oakland, California: 

“Fear is a powerful motivator, and even if it’s just a natural disaster, it’s not like 9/11, you still see people willing to make this sort of calculus that if it can save one life and make things a little bit better, that I’ll sacrifice my civil liberties,” Hofer said. “It’s something that really frustrates me, but I think it’s also sort of human nature that in a crisis we’re not the most clear headed, and if there are nefarious people at the same time pushing an expansion of surveillance, then it finds a receptive audience.”

Covid-19, facial recognition, and the future of privacy

A scary future

We already live in a heavily surveilled world. While facial recognition may stop infected citizens from traveling, is surrendering our privacy worth it? Are draconian measures really the only way to go when it comes to stopping the spread of the virus? When it comes to Covid-19, facial recognition, and the future of privacy, we have to examine whether implementing this technology now means giving up our rights later. It’s a frightening thought that could have major ramifications for future generations. But is it scarier than millions of people dying from a virus? You be the judge. 

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