Eyes Everywhere: East Asia’s Use of Digital Tracking in Containing COVID-19

Since the turn of the century, many East Asian countries have had experience in fighting a virus outbreak, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and dengue virus (DENV). Hubs such as Hong Kong were hit particularly hard by SARS and as a result, government officials have been wary not to repeat the same mistakes of insufficient testing, late containment, and a lack of transparency. With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading around the world, officials have another tool to utilize that was not as available a decade ago: digital media. As many East Asian governments already have measures in place to promote cleanliness and spread information campaigns about viruses — such as Singapore in the case of the dengue fever — officials have not failed to use smartphones to enforce strict measures to contain COVID-19. Most importantly, although these programs can be viewed as an invasion of privacy, they have mostly worked as East Asia, once the epicenter of the outbreak, has presently successfully “flattened the curve”.

In addition to widespread free testing, many East Asian nations have put an emphasis on tracking where certain individuals have traveled recently and who they were in contact with. In South Korea, officials are using measures put in place during the 2015 MERS outbreak, such as security camera footage, credit card records, and GPS from cars and even smartphones, to track where a person may have gone and who they may have been in contact with if they later tested positive. Furthermore, officials are able to send alerts to smartphones if there is a coronavirus case in their district; some websites and smartphone apps can even detail a timeline of a confirmed case, showing the places they went with their corresponding times. Similar to Korea, Singapore also has a strong system in place to allow officials to track individuals by accessing personal information.

East Asian governments have also put similar protocols in place to digitally track those in quarantine. For those quarantined in Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan, they must download an app that tracks them and alerts officials if they breach the quarantine. Furthermore, if an individual were to turn off their location tracking, the police would have the right to visit their house and check up on them to make sure they are following quarantine rules. In Hong Kong, anyone, including non-residents, who has recently returned from travel must wear a wristband that tracks their location. Having to walk to all corners of their house so the software recognizes the parameters, they are not allowed to leave under any circumstances and are required to use food delivery for groceries or take-out. In China, the origin of the outbreak, those who have arrived from overseas must stay in government-sanctioned hotels for 14 days. For those traveling within China either by train or plane, they must have an app where they fill out information that is shared with authorities. For example, in the province of Yunnan, when people go out to restaurants or other hubs, they must scan a QR code so that if they come into contact with an infected person, officials can quickly inform them of such. And in Zhejiang province, users of Alipay, an online payment platform established byAlibaba, can fill out a form with their travel history and are given a green code which allows them to move around freely, or a red/yellow code which means they have to quarantine for 14 days.

Unsurprisingly, as East Asian officials have enacted strict regulations for containing the virus, they have not been reluctant in enforcing these laws and punishing those that do not abide by them. In Hong Kong, those who are found giving false information to the government can be fined up to $5000 HKD ($644) and can be given a prison sentence of up to 6 months. In Singapore, a couple was charged in court for lying about their travels and where they had been and a permanent resident had their status revoked because they were caught leaving their quarantine. And in China, a Chinese-Australian woman caused a social media outrage, was fired from her job, and was forced to leave the country for jogging outside whilst under quarantine. Although enacting strict penalizations for those who do not comply with quarantining measures slows the spread of the virus, it leaves little room for discussion for those who may not consent or agree with such use of digital tracking.

These strict measures only work because of two factors present in East Asia. First, a governmental will to enact laws quickly while the virus is able to be contained. Second, a public trust of the government in the handling of the virus and their personal information. Particularly, that second prerequisite is not present in Western countries where skepticism of the government is prevalent. All in all, one of the principal grounds for why East Asia has been able to combat this virus so effectively by using digital tracking is a prioritization of safety and health over privacy, an ethos not nearly as present in Western countries. Some Western countries, such as France, have been eager to learn about how exactly, in particular, Korea handled the virus. However, the West, and in particular the United States, is going to have to make a decision on whether it is willing to sacrifice much-valued personal liberties in exchange for a less devastating outcome from the virus.

Photo from Shutterstock.