The whole world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, with an alarming number of cases exceeding 2.2 million and deaths over 150,000. The situation forces countries to go on lockdown, governments to impose quarantines and travel bans, businesses to shutter, and so on. People have to limit direct contact with others. In the context of many people being at high risk of infection, measures to prevent the spread of the virus causing COVID-19 need prompt optimization. Such procedures related to immigration inspection, medical declaration, virus detection or using surveillance and monitoring devices become more crucial than ever before.
However, traditional measures are no longer suitable due to restriction policies and lack of human resources. Moreover, the number of people that need monitoring health status is accelerating. In order to enhance those measures, law enforcement agencies have leveraged the achievements of computer science. Artificial intelligence and equivalent technologies can perform intelligent and imaginative functions of a human in preeminent ways.
It is noteworthy that not only the law enforcement system but other agencies also turn to AI to confront COVID-19. For example, such technologies can process a great deal of data to predict the spread of the pandemic, map out and detect infected cells or power robots that take the place of humans in hospitals and isolated areas.
How Countries Use AI Technology to Combat COVID-19
The coronavirus causing COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China. Since then, local authorities have taken certain measures to grasp the situation. They strictly control immigration and monitor suspected cases. For example, the Chinese Police use cameras with facial recognition technology to timely detect and watch quarantined cases. There are numerous people that travelled to COVID-19-affected areas or had close contact with suspected and confirmed cases.
Some countries have turned to using drones to confine the virus. In Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan Police Department patrols and monitors illegal movement across national borders by drones to slow the spread of coronavirus. In China, Spain and France, drones help local authorities to patrol streets, parks, riverbanks and broadcast orders in order to ensure that they comply with authoritative restriction commands. Another AI application is tracker wristband, which is used in Hong Kong to help geofence people. At the airport, each arrival receives a wristband with a specific QR code. Then they have to get a mobile app “StayHomeSafe” and connect the given wristband with the app by scanning their QR code.
Technical devices used to detect elevated body heat are also launched to limit viral transmission. In the United States, Athena Security, a cutting-edge AI security camera startup, states that they have deployed “coronavirus-detecting” cameras. Their AI thermal cameras are able to detect coronavirus in people as well as send immediate alerts. Dermalog has developed a thermal camera using biometric fever screening to quickly and accurately measure body temperature. Dermalog is the largest biometric company based in Germany. Biometric screening systems are also available in airports to contain the virus.
Avoiding The Misuse of High Technology
Thanks to artificial intelligence and other similar technologies, the number of cases, to some extent, are under control. Such technologies, without a doubt, will take a crucial part in confronting COVID-19 in the incoming days during the outbreak.
However, there arises a problem related to human rights. Because authorities can keep a tab on their citizens through AI devices, human privacy and freedom may be seriously affected unless they leverage technologies with caution.
On March 19, 2020, The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) published a joint statement “COVID-19: Governments must promote and protect access to and free flow of information during pandemic – International experts”. They stated that, besides providing truthful and accessible sources of important information, governments must ensure that those tools are “limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time”. Human privacy rights, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms must be “rigorously protected”. Moreover, authorities must protect every patient’s personal data as well.
Protecting Human Rights While Availing Technologies
What should agencies do? How to keep using AI technologies to confront the global pandemic while protecting human privacy rights and freedom?
Governments around the globe are taking advantage of surveillance tools at their disposal to help repulse the spread of COVID-19. Governments either collect anonymized information to comprehensively analyze the movement of people or give out detailed data about individuals’ whereabouts. Most data gatherings are through smartphones. To better protect the right to privacy while tracking citizens, some countries have turned to anonymized data aggregation.
However, gathered personal data, regardless of being anonymized or detailed, are at risk of being misused for other purposes. It is essential that governments ensure those data serve the purpose of medical purposes only.
As COVID-19 becomes a threat to the whole world, countries should collaborate with others. Individual responses are not sufficient to fight the pandemic, according to Antonio Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. This statement is also true for law enforcement agencies. In other words, agencies must share their AI technologies as well as crucial data for common medical purposes.
This is the first time in human history AI technologies can help authorities to track every single person round the clock. But howsoever severe the storm is, it will eventually pass. When the pandemic completely ends, agencies must adjust their surveillance capacities to protect their citizens.
We must always be aware of the duality of high technology in general and artificial intelligence in particular, then use it for legitimate purposes.
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