Camilla Acquarone

Space technologies to fight the Coronavirus epidemics: the pros and the cons

Since last December, when the Coronavirus epidemics had spread out starting from the Chinese city of Wuhan, news are continuously dealing with the numbers of deaths, the infected people, the economic aspects of lock-down and so on. But among others news, an event that has been playing an important role in the fight against the virus has been overshadowed.

In fact, while the epidemic was spreading in the country, China has almost completed its Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), named BeiDou, after thirty years of works. In March 2020, a BeiDou new satellite has been launched, as announced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC). This system uses a high precision antenna that provides new generation positioning, navigation and timing services with a meter-level accuracy.

Thanks to this achievement, China will dispose of a global satellite coverage which will lead to the end of its previous military reliance on the United States’ GPS, one of the most used GNSS.

What is the connection between this fact and the Coronavirus emergency?

As a matter of fact, space technologies can play a crucial role in the fight against Coronavirus and others epidemics, even if some legal and ethical constraints do exist. First, we need to clarify which space technologies are concerned. The most important ones are Remote Sensing and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

Remote Sensing generally refers to the use of satellite-based sensor technologies to detect and classify objects on Earth (e.g. the meteorological images used for weather forecast are issued from Remote Sensing). On the other hand, GNSS refers to a constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites providing signals from space that transmits positioning and timing data to its end-users. GPS is the American GNSS and it is one of the most used in the world; Galileo is the European GNSS and has we have mentioned, China has now its own Global Navigation Satellite System.

The location service, obtained through GNSS, can give real time information about the positioning of people, cars, goods and Artificial Intelligence with a precision of approximately six meters. Those space technologies are especially used in two crucial moments of the battle against the virus; first, to help field operations like hospital construction, wide-ranging disinfection operation, trucks’ control for the transportation of essential goods and so on. On other hand, space services are used to verify the compliance of the quarantine measures, while tracking people’s movement.

Considering the first aspect, the use of space technologies represents without any doubt a pro (1) in the battle against the virus. Some concretes examples, especially related to the Chinese experience will be taken in consideration. By contrast, more issues arise from the second area of application: the control of citizens’ movement during the lockdown through GNSS phones detection. In certain cases, users’ data collection could give important information about the virus propagation, appearing as the only way to ensure the quarantine is respected. But which are the cons (2) of this use? Could it be classified as a breach of privacy rights? When data collection became “too much”?

The pros of using space technologies

China is the first country where the virus has spread out and by a consequence is the first that has concretely applied space technologies in order to face the epidemics. As reported by SpaceWatch Asia, ten thousand disinfection drones have been dispatched in those Chinese provinces with a high concentration of bacteria and virus particles in the air. Those drones are guided by BeiDou‘s high precision navigation and positioning service, so they can automatically detect the area of bacteria and perform the disinfectant spraying with a centimeter-level accuracy. That permits to cover about five thousand square meters in less than fifteen minutes, fifty times faster than traditional means.  Moreover, the use of drones reduces risks of contamination for workers both from the chemical substances and the Coronavirus itself.

Another good example is the contribution of GNSS on the transportation of goods and medical supply, especially in Wuhan province. In fact, China’s transportation management department has equipped all trucks to Wuhan with BeiDou mobile satellite devices connected to the national vehicle networking control system. As a consequence, the transportation command center can monitor the status of trucks on interprovincial highways in order to implement reasonable dispatch and management of the monitored vehicles. This system also guarantees an optimal allocation of public goods.

Concerning the implementation of space technologies for the control of lockdown compliance, it is surely harder to say if it represents a pro or a con. In fact, citizens’ health data processing is normally not allowed by privacy rules, such as GDPR or Chinese Cybersecurity Law. Exceptions to this principle are justified only if the breach in the individual’s private life represents a necessary measure linked to an overriding public interest, proportionate to the aim and limited in time.

Many countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel have set tracking systems that permit to localize users’ phone and monitor their movements. In Europe, this kind of Application has been developing as well. Anyway, in accordance with paragraph 2 of article 9 of GDPR, in the majority of those Apps, user is requested to give his explicit consent to data collection. Moreover, the identity is often anonymized. The pro in the use of such Applications is the concrete help in the monitoring of infected people in order to avoid the propagation of the disease.

A brilliant example of crisis management has been given by Singapore. Due to its huge experience in the epidemics fight, a National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID) has been established. Since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, all cases of suspect flu have been tested and suspect people have been obliged to respect a severe quarantine, enforced with satellite monitoring. The positive side is that only infected people or who has been in contact with confirmed cases of Coronavirus have the obligation to download the government application. Thus, this satellite-based mean of monitoring seems to be proportionate to the gravity of the situation and, above all, it does not take in consideration the entire population.

China, from its side has developed a BeiDou GNSS social app called Health Code available within the platforms of WeChat or Alipay that permits to identify people with a color code, indicating the contagion risk. Only people who have orange or red code are forced to stay home while people with green code can to go to work or take the subway and complete other daily tasks. This kind of social diversification seems to be useful especially in the future, since it is highly likely that the epidemics will not be over at the end of this (almost) global quarantine. It is crucial that a certain part of population keeps working to avoid the activities’ total shut down; this kind of App can give a fast response on who has to stay at home or who can go to work.

Since nowadays people do not seem too concerned about giving their positions’ information on dating Apps or on food delivery platforms, fighting the Coronavirus epidemics using geolocation systems does not seem such an invasion of people privacy. At the same time, an article of The New York Times from March reported this title: “As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets”.

The cons of using space technologies

The abovementioned article goes on saying: “tracking entire populations to combat the pandemic now, could open the doors to more invasive forms of government snooping later”. Like it happened after 9/11, it will be probably necessary to figure a complete revolution in the way we were used to travel, move around and conceive privacy. As said before, the pillars of privacy protection are consent and anonymization. A user is free to download and to give (or not) the consent to an application that monitors him during the health crisis. However, not all the solutions that have been adopted from States are “privacy friendly”.

In Israel, according to emergency regulation, it is now possible to track positive people using a Navigation Satellite System without the prior consent of a judge. According to Digital Agenda for Europe, Shin Bet will make use of the Israeli Application Waze to track their citizens without an express consent.

Returning on the Chinese application Health Code, we can highlight some cons as well. First of all the application has been developed within two of the most popular application in the country: Alipay and WeChat. So, even if Health Code it is not technically mandatory, a great part of Chinese population has already these others two applications on its phone and has already given the consent to be geolocalized. Moreover, in order to move and take the public transportation or just go to the supermarket, people are demanded by police agent to show the QR code that appears in this Application, with the respective color code. This practical use of the App has the result to make it mandatory.

Even if navigation satellite systems are meter-accurate, it can happens that in particular circumstances of overpopulation typical of certain Chinese neighborhoods, the result of tracking gives a color code that does not correspond to the reality of facts. For example, a code can become red only because the App has detached a contact on the building stairs even if the user was actually locked into his house. What does it happen if a person cannot move at all only because his phone’s geolocation did not work properly?

In South Korea, a mean of monitoring based on the “social shame” has been set. Health authorities and district offices send location-based emergency messages that alert people when they are near a confirmed case of the Coronavirus. The “safety guidance texts”, do not reveal the name of the person but they give instead many details about him such as the shape, the places he has visited, and the age and so on. As a result, it becomes easy to find out who is the person concerned. According to The Guardian, this kind of information diffusion leads to social stigma and speculations on extra-marital affairs.

Our society is used to share position information through Social Medias many times per day. However things change when is the government to deal with citizens’ data in order to impose fines and to regulate people life. During this health crisis it has become clear that all the privacy rules can be derogate by emergency legislation with the snap of a finger. According to The Editorial Obs, governments have acted as “Big Brothers”. There is a little understanding of both the potential snooping chances of space technologies and of the legal means to face the States intrusiveness. When will technologies take over?