3 Apr 2020


  • Emerging technologies are being deployed all across Asia to help fight the coronavirus outbreak.
  • China are using robots to disinfect hospitals and deliver medical supplies.
  • In Singapore, government data has enabled detailed mapping of the outbreak and in South Korea, authorities are tracking potential carriers using a cell phone satellite technology.
  • Questions have been raised as to how this innovative use of data may affect privacy.
Disinfecting drones, Talking robots, Artificial intelligence that can scan thousands of medical images in a flash

These are just some of the technologies rolled out by Asian countries including Singapore and China to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 6,500 people worldwide.

Technology powered by artificial intelligence (AI) is helping track the outbreak, clean hospitals, deliver supplies and develop vaccines, with Asian governments encouraging universities and corporations to expedite innovations.

"Sometimes the pace of innovation in emerging digital technologies can be held back by infrastructure, financing, and bureaucratic constraints," said Jonathan Tanner, a digital consultant at the Overseas Development Institute think tank.

"When faced with a challenge like responding to the coronavirus outbreak, there are strong incentives to overcome these constraints quickly and put new technology to the test," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Singapore, where open government data has enabled detailed mapping of the outbreak, robots are delivering meals and medication to patients. Some can also talk.

In China, where the virus emerged late last year, robots are disinfecting hospitals, drones are delivering medical supplies and AI is being used to sort scans to spot the infection.

While in South Korea, authorities are tracking potential carriers using a cell phone and satellite technology.

It is not surprising that these countries have pressed new technologies into use quickly, said Carolyn Bigg, a partner at law firm DLA Piper in Hong Kong who focuses on technology.

"Countries such as Singapore and China want to be leaders in big data and analytics. They are showing how big data platforms can be mobilized quickly and transparently, and be a force for good," she said.

"It will lead to greater awareness of how big data can be used," she said.

More pragmatic:

The coronavirus outbreak labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) last week has led to city lockdowns, school closures, shutting of borders and cancellation of sporting and cultural events.

But countries have responded differently.

The WHO said last month that data protection regulations had delayed delivery of crucial information about the spread of the outbreak outside mainland China, while praising the approaches of the governments of China and Singapore.

While data protection laws in Europe are driven by the intrinsic right to privacy, many Asian countries have "more pragmatic" legislation, even though there are robust compliance frameworks to prevent abuse of data, Bigg said.

"Many data protection laws around the world have provisions to allow governments to bypass getting consent in certain circumstances, for say national security or public health emergencies," she said.

In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), requires anyone seeking to process someone's data to obtain their consent. Mass tracking of people's movements and contacts using smartphone location data violates this.

Singapore's Personal Data Protection Commission has relaxed its terms to allow the collection, use and disclosure of personal data without the person's consent to carry out contact tracing and other coronavirus response measures.

'Mass surveillance':

Yet other Southeast Asian countries are using personal data without protecting people's privacy, said Emilie Pradichit, head of human rights charity Manushya Foundation in Bangkok.

Vietnam is tracking locals and foreigners through mobile apps, while Thai immigration authorities are using location data of those arriving in the country, which amounts to "mass surveillance and a serious risk to privacy," she said.

In the absence of an independent data protection authority in many countries, there is a risk that some of these measures will stay in place even after the situation eases.

As more new technologies are introduced at this time, the dilemma of greater efficiency at the cost of reduced privacy will stay, and the coronavirus outbreak may accelerate the need for decisions about "what is and isn't acceptable," said Tanner.

"A fundamental tension exists between the capacity of digital technologies to harvest data for specific purposes and the risks the use or misuse of that data can pose to individual liberty or security," he said.

"We need governments to ensure citizens are able to play an active role in shaping future policy frameworks that shape how we use AI, digital identity or facial recognition systems so that they can be used with legitimacy."

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