Artificial Intelligence (AI) Biometrics companies are working with the Chinese government to launch large-scale screening and monitoring initiatives in order to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Will surveillance take its toll on data privacy once again?
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China's Double Standard in the Outbreak
The COVID-19 outbreak that originated in Wuhan, Hubei province in China and has brought a paralyzing wave of transportation restrictions and nation-wide lockdowns, putting a strain on almost every single facet of societal life worldwide, pushing healthcare and food providers to their very edge, overloading network infrastructure, and causing large-scale ramifications on most technology supply lines. While the Chinese government has admitted to withholding and censoring information in a manner similar to their response to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, China is currently attempting to emerge as a global leader in the fight against the pandemic, bringing its Artificial Intelligence (AI) biometrics leaders into the fray.
SenseTime, Megvii, Baidu, and Alibaba Leading the AI Biometrics Battle
China, the epicenter for the new strain(s) of the coronavirus, is currently leading world efforts in deploying new technologies to detect, monitor, and control the situation within its borders. Having already been a key region for massive public surveillance initiatives, the Chinese government has rallied major biometric and surveillance organizations to assist in actively detecting potentially infected individuals. SenseTime, one of China’s most valuable AI biometric companies, which has partnered with network infrastructure provider China Tower to conduct public surveillance operations in the past, has leveraged its position to create a contactless temperature detection system to be used in underground transportation hubs and civil and education centers.
Additional high-value AI biometrics companies like Megvii and Internet technology giants like Baidu and Alibaba are developing similar temperature screening solutions to be used in major railway stations. These systems involve the use of surveillance cameras, CCTV infrastructure, and infrared imaging systems. According to Megvii, these contactless solutions have quite a low error margin (0.3 degrees Celsius) and can detect high fever in individuals within a 3-meter radius. This temperature monitoring initiative is aiming to harness the power of biometric surveillance and increase the influx of new data streams with Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen being the first locations in which these systems have been deployed. Further functionality from the face recognition companies allows the monitoring of individuals who are not wearing protective masks, thus counterbalancing in some way at least a percentage of the software limitations.
Biometric wearables and Body-Worn Video (BWV) equipment is also being adapted to the virus outbreak. China has equipped certain police officers in the field with temperature detection helmets capable of detecting high temperature in individuals in a short range (less than 5 meters) to be used alongside their standard face recognition bodycams and glass-cams.
A Necessary Future and/or Bleak Reality?
These surveillance initiatives have the potential to create a sophisticated web allowing for real-time geographical population monitoring, infection readiness, and citizen protection and preparedness, and even use AI models to predict future high-risk infections or outbreaks. On the other hand, this will almost definitely cause an unprecedented strain on citizen privacy and data protection regulation as well as extensive transportation restrictions and security measures akin to the post 9/11 era. As ABI Research mentioned in our Taking Stock of Covid-19 Whitepaper, it is expected that COVID-19 will also cause a chain reaction on the data protection front, putting additional pressure on citizen rights and related legislation and circumventing a good deal of privacy concerns for the sake of additional surveillance and monitoring operations. It falls on the governments and biometric vendors to create citizen-centric solutions and add the necessary restrictions in order to assist worldwide efforts to contain and monitor the virus outbreak. Governments and implementers must prevent the concentration of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) and citizens’ biometric, healthcare, and personal data in the hands of a few entities with no service visibility, no legislative barriers, no surveillance limitations, and no biometric revocation options for the foreseeable future. It is perfectly understandable (and expected) that governments will need to take drastic measures to contain and monitor this outbreak. The ultimate question is, how many states will then relinquish these powers when the pandemic is finally over?