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South Korea launching facial recognition CCTV pilot to trace COVID cases

South Korea launching facial recognition CCTV pilot to trace COVID cases

South Korea is planning to add facial recognition to the technology arsenal of its contact-tracing initiative, with the hope of saving numerous hours of labor and speed up notifications of potential exposure to COVID-19, according to Thomson Reuters.

Bucheon, a city of more than 800,000 at the edge of Seoul, has been granted Won 1.6 billion (US$1.35 million) from the country’s Ministry of Science and ICT, and contributed an additional Won 500 million ($ million) of its budget to develop the facial recognition system for tracking the movements and contact of infected people on footage from 10,820 CCTV cameras. The system can reportedly track the paths of up to ten people in between five and ten minutes.

The system is slated to become operational in January, according to a Bucheon city official. The official says the biometric technology is intended in part to reduce the strain on overworked tracing teams, who Reuters reports have at times worked 24-hour shifts to trace and contact potential coronavirus cases.

“It sometimes takes hours to analyse a single CCTV footage. Using visual recognition technology will enable that analysis in an instant,” Tweeted Bucheon mayor Jang Deog-cheon when the city was bidding for the national pilot project a year ago, according to Reuters.

The pilot will involve a team of around ten staff operating at a public health center.

Authorities also hope the system will help mitigate the effect of individuals being less than forthcoming about their activities.

A legislator from the country’s main parliamentary opposition party, People Power Party, told Reuters that COVID is being used as a pretext for surveillance reminiscent of “Big Brother” and totalitarian states, raising reservations related to funding and consent.

The city official suggested that the rules for contact tracers protect individuals’ privacy. He also said that while consent is needed to track people with facial recognition, the system can also track people through their clothes, and even silhouettes.

A smart city trial in Busan recently drew the attention of the LA Times for its extensive public surveillance, though that system stops short of facial recognition.

Trust in government use of biometrics in South Korea has been damaged, however, by a biometric data-sharing scandal.

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