Coronavirus: World turns to tracking tools to combat COVID-19 spread

Faced with an unprecedented pandemic around the world, countries are turning to tracking technology to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

This allows governments to locate and monitor people who have been in contact with those carrying the virus. However privacy activists fear it could come at a cost for civil liberties.

In New Zealand, a local tech company says its app can help locate people and provide alert notifications to protect them if they are entering high-risk areas.

"With the Jupl platform, we can track an individual's location in real-time, set geo-fence-based alerts such as people leaving or entering a quarantine area," says Alan Brannigan, CEO and co-founder of Jupl. 

"Also, with regular check-in 'are you ok?' prompts, we can ensure that people returning to New Zealand are safe and inside their designated quarantine area."

Co-founder Sir Ray Avery is encouraging the Government to look at how we may use technology to reduce incidences of coronavirus infections in New Zealand.

"Currently police are spot-checking a small percentage of people under self-quarantine lock-downs, but this is not scalable and may expose officers to the virus who in turn pass it on to the next person they are checking," he says in a statement.

"Given that all of the current coronavirus infected patients have travelled overseas and diagnosed on their return to New Zealand, it's vital to be able to track their movements and ensure who they may have connected with at any given point in time."

A person in self-isolation.
A person in self-isolation. Photo credit: Getty

Israel uses anti-terrorism tech to track COVID-19

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to use anti-terrorism tracking technology to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission.

"We will very soon begin using technology... digital means that we have been using in order to fight terrorism," Netanyahu told a news conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Netanyahu said it was not an easy choice to make and described the virus as an "invisible enemy that must be located."

"In all my years as prime minister I have avoided using these means among the civilian public but there is no choice," Netanyahu said.

Avner Pinchuk, a privacy expert with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said such capabilities could include real-time tracking of infected persons' mobile phones to spot quarantine breaches and backtracking through meta-data to figure out where they had been and who they had contacted.

"I am troubled by this announcement. I understand that we are in unique circumstances, but this seems potentially like over-reach. Much will depend on how intrusive the new measures are," said Pinchuk.

How Asian nations are stopping the spread

Health workers.
Health workers. Photo credit: Getty

Many Asian countries are on a war footing to prevent further outbreak after a surge of infections among people travelling from other countries, especially Europe.

In South Korea, visitors from high-risk countries like France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands now need to download an app the South Korean government rolled out to report whether they have any symptoms related to the virus every day.

Singapore has launched a contact-tracing smartphone app to allow authorities to identify those who have been exposed to people infected with the coronavirus.

Users will need to send their logs when requested by the health ministry, which will otherwise not have any knowledge of the data, according to an official statement.

Taiwan is rolling out a mobile phone-based "electronic fence" that uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

"The goal is to stop people from running around and spreading the infection," said Jyan Hong-wei, head of Taiwan's Department of Cyber Security, who leads efforts to work with telecom carriers to combat the virus.

The system monitors phone signals to alert police and local officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes.

Officials also call twice a day to ensure people don't avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

Taiwan's electronic fence has drawn some complaints for its intrusiveness.

"It's creepy that the government is teaming up with telecommunications companies to track our phones," said a flight attendant in Taipei, who was put under 14-day quarantine after returning from Europe in mid-March.

The woman, who identified herself as Xiaomei, said she was scolded by a local administrator after failing to pick up a check-in phone call in the morning when she was asleep.

"They said the police will come to me if I missed another phone call," she said. "I'm treated like a prisoner."

Reuters / Newshub