Written by Emily Weinstein.
Nearly ten months after scientists identified COVID-19, China, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and other countries are seeing a return to semi-normal life, albeit with mask-wearing and other precautionary measures. In most cases, these successes have been born from the deployment of various technologies aimed at monitoring citizens who have been exposed to the virus. At the same time, government use of these technologies is alarming privacy and human-rights advocates, particularly in countries with inadequate track records in personal freedoms for citizens. Is there a happy technological medium that respects personal privacy while simultaneously managing the spread of this pandemic?
As one of the earliest countries to react to the outbreak of COVID-19, Taiwan has kept ahead of the curve since the beginning. In response to the early news out of Wuhan, the Taiwanese government on December 31, 2019, immediately enforced strict border control and quarantine measures. Within three weeks, on January 20, the government reinstituted the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) for Severe Special Infectious Pneumonia. This was composed of government agencies and medical experts to take charge of Taiwan’s response and coordinate resources from public and private stakeholders. CECC, which was also used during the SARS and avian flu outbreaks, has continued to issue guidance alongside Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Technology has played a vital role in Taiwan’s epidemic control and prevention since the start in terms of tracking and monitoring the progression of COVID-19. As early as February 16, travellers arriving in Taiwan have been required to isolate for 14 days as well as sign on to Taiwan’s Health Declaration and Home Quarantine E-System (Entry Quarantine System) via QR code. As part of the system, individuals in 14-day home isolation were contacted twice daily by local health agencies to learn about their health status. In collaboration with local telecommunications companies, the Taiwanese government launched an electronic security monitoring system to track individuals required to isolate in their homes upon arriving in Taiwan via their cell phones. Taiwanese citizens’ pre-existing household registration and foreigners’ entry cards also allowed the government to track individuals deemed as high risk via electronic cell phone monitoring. Civil affairs bureau workers tasked with monitoring these individuals could then receive an SMS notification if a phone signal disappeared, and police authorities would be notified and asked to perform a location check. An individual found in violation of quarantine could be subject to fines or moved to designated quarantine sites.
Although Taiwan is not the only country to deploy surveillance and monitoring systems during the pandemic, it stands out amid others in the region, and especially China, in its efforts to use these technologies in a way that strives to respect individual privacy and does not infringe on individual rights. This is not to say that any digital technology developed in arguably authoritarian environments is inherently nefarious. In fact, Chinese firms have developed impressive AI-based medical imaging software to help diagnose COVID-19 quickly and more effectively, among other achievements. However, nefarious examples do indeed exist. Most prominently, Alibaba’s Alipay Health Code app requires individuals to fill in their personal information, where they live, whether they have been exposed to the virus or not, and their symptoms via biometric data. Once completed, the app displays one of three colours: green means they are free to go anywhere, yellow means they must quarantine for seven days, and red means they must quarantine for 14 days. This information is also shared with local police and authorities.
On the surface, the Alipay Health Code system appears similar to the equivalent in Taiwan. However, unlike Taiwan’s system, the Alipay app goes beyond monitoring contagion risk. A March 2020 New York Times investigation of the app revealed that as soon as the user grants the software access to personal data (of which individuals are required to do), a piece of program labelled “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” sends the individual’s location, city name, and identification code to a server. However, the software does not make clear to users its connections to law enforcement.
Furthermore, the Taiwanese government has worked to make its system and rationale behind it as transparent as possible. A May 2020 statement from Taiwan’s CDC states the following:
“The CECC explains that in order to ensure personal data protection, proprietors of venues where customers’ personal data is collected must designate a person to be in charge of keeping a record of and maintaining personal data collected. Such data can be retained at most for 28 days and should be deleted after the specified period of time. Such data may not be used for any purposes other than outbreak investigations.“
In contrast, neither Alibaba nor Chinese government officials have explained in detail how the Health Code system classifies people nor what it does with the personal data it obtains.
The Taiwanese system has not been perfect. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Taiwanese citizens are unhappy with the high-tech developments. A March 2020 Reuters article cites a woman who stated that a local administrator scolded her for failing to pick up a check-in call during quarantine while she was sleeping. The woman claims she feels like a prisoner after being warned that the police would come to her if she missed another call. Others like Taipei-based tech policy consultant TH Schee have argued that the monitoring system triggers too many false alarms, leading to unnecessary police visits.
However, despite the imposition of new technologies into their everyday lives, Taiwanese citizens, on the whole, seem satisfied with their government’s response to the pandemic. Survey data from Taiwan’s TVBS News in March 2020 states that 84 per cent of people were satisfied with the government’s performance in handling COVID-19, and 87 per cent of people were confident in the government’s ability to prevent and control the pandemic. In September 2020, 61 per cent of those surveyed approved of Taiwan’s Entry Quarantine System and process and believe it is necessary to quarantine regardless of the presence or lack of symptoms. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the Taiwanese government has been effective in its messaging efforts; September 2020 survey data demonstrates that 86 per cent of surveyees wear masks when entering and leaving public places.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the proliferation of technologies that have the potential to encroach on the privacy and dignity of individuals. China and Russia have deployed surveillance technologies under the guise of containment, but with more malicious intentions to track political dissidents and disorder; other countries have followed suit. However, Taiwan appears to have succeeded in striking a balance between public safety and personal freedoms. Like-minded democratic nations can consider Taiwan a model for achieving stability amid the chaos of COVID-19.
Emily Weinstein is a Research Analyst at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), focused on Chinese innovation and domestic S&T policies and development. She holds an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a B.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Michigan.