Facial Recognition For Covid-19 Tracking In Seoul

The city of Bucheon, population 830,000, is a satellite city southwest of Seoul and part of the greater metropolitan area and the site of a pilot program to apply AI facial recognition and tracking technologies to aid Covid-19 epidemiological investigators. South Korea has been generally praised for its rapid response to coronavirus patient tracking since the beginning of the outbreak. People entering public facilities enter their information on a roster or scan a QR code. Epidemiologists tracking outbreaks use a variety of data available to them, including these logs, electronic transaction data, mobile phone location logs, CCTV footage, and interviews. But the workload can be overwhelming, and there are only a fixed number of workers with the required training available, despite efforts to hire more.

As contract tracing has been done to-date, it takes one investigator up to an hour to trace the movements of one patient. When the system goes online in January, it should be able to trace one patient in less than a minute, handling up to ten traces simultaneously. Project officials say there is no plan for this system to expand to the rest of Seoul, nor nationwide. But with the growing virus caseloads and continued difficulties hiring and training investigators, it’s not unexpected that officials will be turning to these technologies more and more to keep up with the increasing workload.

Like the controversy surrounding the recent facial recognition project at Incheon International Airport, people are becoming concerned about the privacy implications and the specter of a Big Brother government that tracks each and every move of its citizens — a valid fear, given the state of technology today. The project planners note that the data is being legally collected and its usage subject to strict rules. Korean privacy law requires consent for the collecting and storage of biometric data. But there are exceptions for situations such as disease control and prevention.

Even if all the privacy concerns are solves, we wonder just how effective these AI systems will be for tracking people wearing masks. This is not an issue unique to South Korea or even Asia. Many countries around the world are turning to such technologies (see this article from the Columbia School of Law) and are having similar struggles striking the balance between privacy and public health requirements.

[Banner image: “facial-recognition-1” by Electronic_Frontier_Foundation. Thanks for all you do!]

32 thoughts on “Facial Recognition For Covid-19 Tracking In Seoul

  1. @Chris Lott said: “Even if all the privacy concerns are solves, we wonder just how effective these AI systems will be for tracking people wearing masks.”

    * Facial recognition identifies people wearing masks

    Verification takes less than one second, with an accuracy rate of more than 99.9%, NEC says.


    * Facial recognition: Now algorithms can see through face masks

    The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is piloting facial recognition technologies that can see through face masks with a “promising” level of accuracy, meaning that travelers could end up breezing through airports without the need to uncover their mouths and noses at border checks.


  2. Cat is out of the bag of or a long time now. Applications like this are pretty much inevitable.

    As said in the intro for PoI:
    “You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine…”

    Except it’s not that secret

          1. That’s why they’ll just call it a booster shot and people will all rush to get a subdermal tracker because it’ll be, “for their own good and the good of the people around them”. Or maybe they’ll just put it in the water.

          2. I was more thinking of people cheating, than crimes, not wanting to show up on cameras. People who would power off their phone (or remove their battery – not that is possible these days, phone are designed to last a couple of years) nearing their clandestine meeting places.

  3. If this is used in the USA, I wonder if circumventing this would be against the DMCA? If not, I can easily foresee it becoming illegal soon. We truly live in interesting times.

    1. Circumventing it won’t be against the Digital Millennium COPYRIGHT Act, as there’s no copyright issue involved in avoiding being recognised.
      It might break OTHER legislation, but not DMCA.

  4. Since the beginning of this pandemic situation, all I can see is the power guys showing their position as our owners.
    Lots of moves against freedom, and they keep going…

  5. This article sure brought the conspiracy weirdos to the comments and they’re exhaustingly disconnected from reality as usual. Can’t sneak a non-existent 5G chip past them, but you can absolutely sail 100,000 tankers full of lead tetroxide and climate change right under their noses… and right into their tanks since GM illegally conspired to kill public transit. (Sidenote: I will be angry about GM forever)

    S. Korea’s issue seems to be that pandemic and wartime politicking are similar enough to stack up well on each other. Sadly human rights never fare well when a country feels truly threatened. Given the geopolitical neighborhood I’m frankly surprised it isn’t worse there already. Peacetime is the only time governments concern themselves with protection of individual rights.

    Hopefully this initiative is stopped before it rolls out. Other nations *will* treat this as a bellwether.

  6. Yeah, it’s either everyone get COVID or face tracking. So I choose latter.
    Didn’t know people care so much what we do here in Korea.
    Please keep your COVID at your place and don’t come out.

    1. Replace “or” with “and”. You will be closer to the truth. The virus will always be one step ahead.
      Btw: You did read your copy of 1984, did you? A government always needs a scapegoat to divert the gaze of the people from the actual problems they are unable to solve.

    2. I wasn’t saying that I care what happens in Korea, I was just saying that I still don’t understand how one “gets” “COVID” when the numbers from every country show a survival rate of 99.97% or greater. Statistically speaking, that sounds like, well, nothing at all… Then again, nobody cares about math when it comes to this topic; emotion seems to dominate the conversation, so maybe it all makes sense.

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