How Far Is Too Far? Isabelle Osborne

Track & Trace in the Time of Pandemics

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, countries across the world have reacted to reducing its spread and devastation in dramatically different ways. Here in the UK, our government has taken the defensive approach, locking down the country and promoting social distancing and hygiene methods whilst setting aside NHS resources and hospitals to treat the injected. But, not all countries have followed the same pattern. Whilst Spain, Germany and France are among the countries moving in relatively similar ways to Britain, the situation couldn’t be more different as we look further East.

South Korea has installed an efficient and, some may say, aggressive regime of testing and tracking to drastically reduce infections. Rather than prevention, their strategy has involved the use of data from phones, cars, CCTV footage and credit card records to identify who has come into contact with an infected individual. On first glance, South Korea’s methods certainly sound overly intrusive, yet as of 13:30 on May 20th 2020, their death toll is at just 263, with recovered cases totaling 10,066[1], among the lowest stats internationally. If we compare this to the UK, which has one of the highest death rates worldwide at 35,341 as of May 20th[2], it certainly does suggest their methods have been effective. But, have they taken intruding on people’s lives too far?

What’s struck me is how swiftly these track and trace measures have been implemented. Since 2015, South Korean law states that personal data can be accessed during infectious disease crises without the consent of the individual[3]. This insinuates that these methods of reducing transmission were, in fact, a well-resourced plan developed over time in response to prior epidemics. Should we be alarmed by how such intrusion into people’s lives has been on the cards in South Korea since before the outbreak of coronavirus, or reassured at their planning? The use of surveillance culture certainly contradicts their non-authoritarian ethos in favour of more significantly intrusive measures.

What’s struck me is how swiftly these track and trace measures have been implemented. Since 2015, South Korean law states that personal data can be accessed during infectious disease crises without the consent of the individual.

The law in South Korea suggests track and trace is only used in the event of a pandemic. However, after watching a Channel 4 interview with Lilian Edwards, Professor of internet law at Newcastle University, and Ngaire Woods, Dean of Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, I started to question how easy it would be for governments to stop track and trace following the resolution of the pandemic, and how swiftly the impositions on ones autonomy can be retracted. On this topic, Edwards implied that the law should state that giving up personal data should not be compulsory, whilst, at the same time, dodging the question of whether taking back liberty over our data is a quick process[4]; illuminating how difficult it is to provide a black-and-white answer on whether these drastic measures will compromise an individual’s privacy in the long run. Towards the end of the interview, presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy pointed out that South Korea often change laws to suit their policies, reaffirming Edwards’ idealism that using the law to protect people who do not want to give up their privacy is reductive.

From this, the question of whether governments are using the pandemic for their own dictatorial gain must be asked. It is, of course, a question of the ethics. As an Economist article echoes: ‘Good governments will take only the data they need from their citizens and do so only when they need it. Others will not.’[5] Already, the Hungarian Parliament have issued a law to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban almost unlimited power to rule by decree, with no planned date of termination of this law, whilst Cambodia has an emergency law that condones unlimited surveillance of citizens[6]. Whilst countries such as South Korea have proper safeguards in place[7] and insist such measures of surveillance would only be used in the climate we are experiencing currently, surely leaders who rule a weak democracy without strict checks on their actions can simply continue to snoop and data collect after the pandemic is over at the expense of their citizens?

‘Good governments will take only the data they need from their citizens and do so only when they need it. Others will not.’

Perhaps more alarmingly is the fact that it is not just the government this data could be accessed by. Cybercrime has been a threat to our privacy since way before the virus outbreak, with criminal masterminds accessing people’s data to scam, rob or groom individuals. Allowing, for example, authorities to access people’s geolocation could open more opportunities for location-based cybercrime such as the leaking of home, work, school addresses, and other recorded locations, being used by hackers.

It’s also worth considering the effect of putting a strategic plan in place prior to an outbreak, despite its dangerously intrusive nature. Perhaps this was crucial for efficient prevention of virus transmission, something the British government are realising now where no such plan has ever existed. This highlights the disparity of the debate, and widens the discussion on whether our surveillance culture should be adjusted. Will reflecting on the current pandemic lead to stricter measures in this area? This possibility is certainly frightening – the dawn of less privacy in favour of national security. It seems governments only ever rethink their surveillance strategies following an extreme event, such as the Patriot Act passed by American Congress as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attack[8]. And, coupled with the rise of autocratic rule and the possibility that governments across the world could justify having access to people’s data using the coronavirus pandemic, this sparks concern for whether a new era of surveillance culture could be upon us.

It seems governments only ever rethink their surveillance strategies following an extreme event, such as the Patriot Act passed by American Congress as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Whilst this article was inspired by South Korea and its measures of preventing the spread of coronavirus, we cannot ignore the fact that the UK government is already moving in this direction with the development of a tracking app for phones designed to notify people if they have been in close contact with someone who reports positive for Covid-19[9]. This being the case, they must self-isolate for a given time. For this to be effective, our phones must track our location at all times. Does this mean that the South Korean dystopic vision will soon become our reality too? It is a surreal thought, to wonder if we are to become guinea pigs in a government experiment. How would the UK react to mimicking the South Korean response? An article in The Economist argued ‘sacrificing privacy for the sake of liberty may appeal after a long enough period of de facto house arrest’[10], but the question remains as to whether these methods would work in the UK. In her Channel 4 interview, Ngaire Woods stressed the importance of learning from what works in other countries, specifically drawing upon South Korea’s results[11]. I would argue that this is a flawed logic. South Korea is incomparable to the United Kingdom, politically, socially and culturally, and liberal British society is arguably not wired to adopt such military-style tactics. Through our democratic process, if it is to remain, these methods will surely face public resistance.

How would the UK react to mimicking the South Korean response? An article in The Economist argued ‘sacrificing privacy for the sake of liberty may appeal after a long enough period of de facto house arrest’[10], but the question remains as to whether these methods would work in the UK.

Whatever is, or isn’t on the cards or being considered, there must be a conversation as to whether track and trace can be achieved using minimal, effective means, without imposing on our freedom to a dangerous extent. It must be considered whether giving up autonomy over our data is a necessity for the greater good of the world. We do indeed give up bits of our data everyday, such as our addresses for deliveries and our emails for online subscriptions. Google takes the algorithms when we shop to tailor the adverts we see, but never has anyone demanded we reveal our location before. In following South Korea’s example, it seems that to give up total lockdown would be to concede to giving up our data in an attempt to keep the virus at bay, suggesting our ultimate privacy may face a period of uncertainty in order to prevent more deaths. Is this to become an uncomfortable reality for generations to come?

If this is the solution, and we must concede to the idea that track and trace is necessary to prevent loss of life in the outbreak of a pandemic, transparency is absolutely crucial for understanding how our data is used, and protected, for the public to get on board with it. This is especially important considering the lack of clarity the government have provided throughout their measures to fight COVID-19 thus far. We must be made aware of what data is to be used, and how it will be obtained. If we are to accept a new wave of surveillance culture as the norm, an immense level of trust and confidence will have to be bestowed upon our government that it will only be used in times of absolute necessity. We only have to cast our minds back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 – when Facebook users’ personal data was harvested without consent – to highlight concern that data breaches are all too real.

We must be made aware of what data is to be used, and how it will be obtained. If we are to accept a new wave of surveillance culture as the norm, an immense level of trust and confidence will have to be bestowed upon our government that it will only be used in times of absolute necessity.

In British society, we feel entitled to our freedom, and this is a key part of our way of life, but with the highest death rate in Europe, and if pandemics are considered as a likely recurrence in our future, it may be that monitoring our location is to become a part of our everyday existence. When I look at South Korea now, in response to the crisis, it brings to life a certain dystopia that I have only ever read about in fiction or watched in films. The question remains: data protection, or saving lives?[12] The UK death rate has now reached 35,341[13]. As these complicated issues begin to gain more energy as the weeks pass by, it’s inevitable that we’ll begin to consider whether this is a necessary measure to save thousands of lives, or an opportunity to take things too far.

Isabelle Osborne

Isabelle Osborne is a 18-year-old emerging writer from South Yorkshire, studying English Literature at University College London. After leaving Hive’s Doncaster Young Writers to pursue the next stage in her education, Isabelle has become an opinion columnist for UCL’s Pi Media, in the hope of transferring her skills into a career as a journalist. She also runs her own blog, World of Words, which aims to encourage creative expression. Check out her blog here & follow her on instagram at @world_ofwordsblog 

  1. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/south-korea/
  2. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/uk/
  3. https://chpi.org.uk/blog/what-can-the-uk-learn-from-south-koreas-response-to-covid-19/
  4. https://www.channel4.com/news/are-people-going-to-be-excluded-from-workplace-if-they-dont-go-with-contact-tracing-app-newcastle-universitys-lilian-edwards
  5. ‘Protection racket’, The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, April 25th 2020. Accessible online: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/04/23/would-be-autocrats-are-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-to-grab-more-power
  6. ‘Protection racket’, The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, April 25th 2020. Accessible online: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/04/23/would-be-autocrats-are-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-to-grab-more-power
  7. ‘A pandemic of power grabs’, The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, April 25th 2020. Accessible online: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/04/23/autocrats-see-opportunity-in-disaster
  8. https://www.eff.org/issues/patriot-act
  9. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2020/05/13/download-nhs-contact-tracing-app-coronavirus-uk/
  10. ‘Charlemagne – Testing the faith’, The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, April 25th 2020. Accessible online: https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/04/23/privacy-in-a-pandemic
  11. https://www.channel4.com/news/are-people-going-to-be-excluded-from-workplace-if-they-dont-go-with-contact-tracing-app-newcastle-universitys-lilian-edwards
  12. ‘Charlemagne – Testing the faith’, The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, April 25th 2020. Accessible online: https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/04/23/privacy-in-a-pandemic
  13. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/uk/