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The good, bad, and the ugly in tracking the Coronavirus outbreak

The a advent of the Coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) has come out in an age of technology and has been met with a burst of online activity. It’s clear, for every situation we face in life – there’s an app or a new technology-driven solution and the Coronavirus is no exception. Here is a short review of the good, bad, and ugly technologies – and why some of them will be important even after this pandemic is over.

Lets start with the good

Fighting an epidemic has a lot to do with information and location – information about symptoms and a potential ‘to do’ list and reducing the free range of infectious individuals and their ability to inadvertently spread the illness. The South Korean government has launched an app to help both infected individuals and the health authorities keep track stay within the limited self-quarantine area and information about the disease itself, reported MIT’s TechnologyReview.

“There is a limit to the human resources available to local governments to monitor these people,” said Jung Chang-hyun, the ministry official who supervised development of the app. “The app is a support service aimed at making this more efficient.”

The app utilizes geo-fencing to keep track of the infected, informing both the health authorities and the sick individuals when they stray out of bounds. It also enables sick individuals to self-report their symptoms.  It’s not just the technology features that are important. Overall, it is interesting for its combination of automatic reporting, user feedback, and being a volunteer option. This is part of Korea’s aggressive openness in testing and reporting on the virus.

Excellence in displaying the data

Keeping up with data — making it illustrated, understandable, and interesting — is a big dashboard issue. Two dashboards that have gotten a lot of attention for the way they show the pandemic data are from Singapore’s UpCode and Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Both dashboards take data from official sources and tweak it to be more attractive and informative. The user preferences for these sites over the official ones shows that it’s not enough to just have accurate data — it’s important to show it well. Look out for  dashboard evolution to continue into other, non-medical sectors.

The bad of coronavirus technology

As with every major tragedy, there are suspect apps and technology grifters trying to make money with apps, malware, and phishing schemes.

The list of dubious apps is headed by AC19. This is the anti-corona virus app you have probably never heard of – unless you live in Iran or read IT press. Released by the Iranian government, it has been seen as a spy tool for collecting user information and roundly panned for its self-diagnose sections due to its rounds of simplistic medical questions. The IT debate is mixed over whether it is a surveillance app and whether this activity played into its removal from the Google Play store. Behind this debate is the question of trust and whether anything – statement, app, or statistic – from the Iranian government can be believed. Outside of the Iranian specifics, this is a question that many people have been asking of their governments and which is also fueling the growth of questionable and fraudulent schemes.

Look out for the hybrid phish

Yes, ransomwarebogus emails, scam websites with coronavirus and COVID variants in the name, and phishing links with information about the virus from the Center for Disease Control are very much active. These are tried and true tactics. But this time around, there is more. In a novel twist reported by KrebsOnSecurity, hackers have developed and are selling a pay-and-play kit that uses the latest real infection dashboards and combines this with various malware payloads. The kit uses the John Hopkins interactive map (yes, the one mentioned above for its memorable display of data) and gives cybercriminals an interactive experience to catch victims with. This is really phishing II – real data with a side dish of malware — a much more persuasive tactic than those past DHL and Nigerian princess phishing schemes.

To defend against all of these schemes, people need to practice getting their information directly from the source, and not trusting seemingly authentic links. Here are the real Coronavirus links for the CDC and the health authorities in the state of New York and Washington.

And now for the ugly

The ugly is often good which has been distorted – and this is true with COVID-19. The virus is slamming together two viewpoints of humanity: autonomous people with the ability to make responsible choices with reality that humans are social creatures which live in community with other humans – and where an individual’s choice can have profoundly negative impacts on the rest of the community. Just think of the Typhoid Mary dilemma with a high tech twist. The ugly aspect of coronavirus is how it will be used to strengthen surveillance technologies, collection of private data – and put a modern twist on the “unclean unclean” mantra of leprosy victims in the past.

One example of this is a  Chinese “close contact detector” app which has users register with their phone number, name, and ID, and then subsequently scan a QR code on their smartphones. The app then tells them if they have been close physical proximity to known infected individuals. If yes, the app recommends self-quarantine and sends an alert to local health officials. It also lets them look at the health situation of up to three other individuals. While the need to know when a person has been exposed is real, this raises a range of issues about privacy, the role of false positives, who owns or controls the collected data, and whether the use of such apps is voluntary. Just think of what happens when COVID-19 gets incorporated into a social credit scheme such as already exists. The possibilities are indeed ugly.

This post is also available in: FrenchItalian

As a PR Consultant and journalist, Frink has covered IT security issues for a number of security software firms, as well as provided reviews and insight on the beer and automotive industries (but usually not at the same time). Otherwise, he’s known for making a great bowl of popcorn and extraordinary messes in a kitchen.
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