Beginning in January, the nationally funded pilot project will be tested in Bucheon, a city of about 850,000 people located between Incheon and Seoul.
It will use artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movement of individuals infected with COVID-19, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask, according to a 110-page business plan from the city submitted to the Ministry of Science and Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
Despite concerns about invasion of privacy, governments around the world have turned to new technologies and expanded legal powers to try to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections. China, Russia, India, Poland, and Japan as well as several U.S. states are among the governments to have rolled out or at least experimented with facial recognition systems for tracking COVID-19 patients, according to a March report by Columbia Law School in New York.
A proposal for the system by the city of Bucheon was first approved in February by the federal Ministry of Science and ICT.
“Using facial recognition technology will enable that analysis in an instant,” said Bucheon Mayor Jang Deog-cheon in bidding for national funding for the pilot project late last year. He said it will save workers from having to spend “hours analyzing a single [segment of] CCTV footage.”
A city official said the pilot project should reduce the strain on overworked tracing teams in a city with a population of more than 800,000 people, and help use the teams more efficiently and accurately.
The plan also states that the system is designed to overcome the fact that tracing teams have to rely heavily on the testimony of COVID-19 patients, who aren’t always truthful about their activities and whereabouts.
There aren’t currently plans to expand the project to the national level, the Ministry of Science and ICT said.
Bucheon received 1.6 billion won ($1.36 million) from the Ministry of Science and ICT and injected 500 million won of the city budget into the project to build the system, a city official said.
Amid privacy concerns, Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency has justified the use of facial recognition technology within the realm of the disease control and prevention law.
Amnesty International and more than 170 organizations in June called for a ban on biometric surveillance, saying that it undermines human rights and civil liberties, including the rights to privacy and data protection, the right to freedom of expression, the right to free assembly and association, and the rights to equality and non-discrimination.
Reuters contributed to this report.