Balancing tech and privacy in coronavirus fight

(ATF) There’s no sign of a global decline in Covid infection numbers, meaning the imminent arrival of vaccines will be welcomed with open arms. 

Even without them technology will have a role in the eventual eradication of the virus; AI, big data, facial recognition – all the big names of blooming technology will act as game changers in battling this dreadful pandemic. 

But behind the convenience, fear of data privacy grows. How can society balance this life-saving contribution with growing public anxiety over the data?

“The spread of Covid-19 is a mathematical problem,” said Keith Lau, Managing Director of iBonus limited, a 20-year-old Hong Kong technology company focused on mobile payment technology. Lau has spent HKD$100,000 to develop a system to track Covid infections based on his award-winning payment system since March, when the pandemic took root.

“Our concept is based on prevention and we are trying to prevent those who have close contact with the infected from going to different gathering places,” said Lau.

The system tracks with Octopus Card, a stored-value payment card that almost every Hong Konger will use to access public transport. Users will receive a notification if they have been to the same venue at the same time as someone who has been identified as infected with the virus.

Lau has sold around 100 machines since the product’s launch in September to high-risk venues such as elderly homes, restaurants, bars, clinics, hotels, wet markets and club houses. But it is still far from his expectation, its effectiveness is limited because it lacks one key ingredient – data of local infections from the government’s Centre for Health Protection, Lau explained.

“We don’t get support from the Hong Kong government despite the fact that our system is recommended as a top solution from the United Nations World Tourism Office and the World Health Organization,” said Lau.

Personal data

Lau developed his Covid tracing system to be aligned with Octopus cards to avoid the impression that his system collects personal data from mobile apps. He found the contradictory dilemma too. 

He changed strategy with a health declaration approach, which is well accepted in crowded events and venues like football matches, fine-dining restaurants, universities, personal care spaces and clinics. He plans to rebrand the system from a tracing tool to a declaration tool. “There is no resistance and no concern about privacy issues” with that, Lau said.