Technology is playing an unprecedentedly far-reaching role in how the world is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. There are surveillance systems that track the movements of entire populations thanks to the signals emitted by smartphones and facial recognition cameras with thermal imaging technology that can track the temperature on people’s faces.
While this could significantly help societies recover from the ravages of the pandemic, many fear that governments could use the current situation as a cover to encroach on the privacy of citizens. Not to mention the fundamental principles of democracy. And the technology, surveillance technology, in particular, is not without its limits and could be misused. With very damaging effects.
Consider facial recognition technology. Some of the world’s most prominent technology and surveillance companies have put new facial recognition tools on the market that claim to be able to identify anyone on the street, in office buildings, or any other public venue. And they claim this technology is so accurate it can even recognize people when they are wearing masks.
This can be very useful for curbing the spread of COVID-19, but it can be a slippery slope from there. It can easily evolve into a means for mass surveillance, discrimination, and persecution.
And there are other big risks when it comes to these facial recognition tools: the possibility of false positives or negatives, and the general inaccuracy of the technology as a result of inadequate testing.
It is a distinct possibility that an automated system can falsely identify someone as people with an elevated body temperature just as they are returning home from buying groceries.
This is a very likely scenario because infrared imaging equipment can be broken or used incorrectly. Furthermore, readings can be misinterpreted by a human reviewer or by an automated process over which people have no control, which is even more alarming.
It’s not that technology has no part to play in a pandemic response or that surveillance can never be the right thing, but increased digital surveillance needs to go hand in hand with ethical accountability if it is going to take place. And considering the undemocratic power grabs that have happened this year amid the pandemic in countries like Belarus and Hungary, this is especially important to observe and enforce.
We really must ask ourselves: when the COVID-19 pandemic ends, do we want to live in a society where mass surveillance is the accepted norm in the name of public health?