In a cramped office in eastern Seoul, Hwang Seungwon pointed a remote control toward a huge NASA-like overhead screen stretching across one of the walls.
With each flick of the control, a colorful array of pie charts, graphs and maps revealed the search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens being monitored by voice-enabled smart speakers, an experimental remote care service the company has said is increasingly needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We closely monitor for signs of danger, whether they are more frequently using search words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity,” said Hwang, director of a social enterprise established by SK Telecom to handle the service.
Trigger words lead to a recommendation for a visit by local public health officials.
As South Korea’s government pushes to allow businesses to access vast amounts of personal information and to ease restrictions holding back telemedicine, tech firms could potentially find much bigger markets for their artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies.
The drive, resisted for years by civil liberty advocates and medical professionals, has been reinvigorated by a technology-driven fight against COVID-19. It has so far allowed South Korea to emerge as something of a coronavirus success story, but also raised broader worries that privacy is being sacrificed for epidemiological gains.
Armed with an infectious disease law that was strengthened after a 2015 outbreak of a different coronavirus, MERS, health authorities have aggressively used credit-card records, surveillance videos and cellphone data to find and isolate potential virus carriers.
Locations where patients went before they were diagnosed are published on Web sites and released through cellphone alerts. Smartphone tracking apps are used to monitor about 30,000 individuals quarantined at home.
Starting this month, entertainment venues would be required to register customers with smartphone QR codes so they could be easily located if needed.
However, there is a dark side. People have often managed to trace back the online information to the unnamed virus carriers, exposing embarrassing personal details and making them targets of public contempt.
A low point came last month when local media described some Seoul nightclubs linked to dozens of infections as catering to sexual minorities, triggering homophobic responses.
Officials reacted by expanding “anonymous testing,” which allowed people to provide only their phone numbers and not their names during tests. There was a subsequent increase in tests.
The past months have exposed a stark division about the best ways to make important decisions when privacy concerns collide with public health needs, said Haksoo Ko, a Seoul National University law professor and codirector of the school’s Artificial Intelligence Policy Initiative.
About 3,200 people across the country, mostly older than 70 and living alone, have so far allowed the SK Telecom speakers to listen to them 24 hours a day since the service launched in April last year.
The company expects users to at least double by the end of the year, judging by local government interest. The technology has reduced human contact in welfare services, while still providing governments with a tool to prevent elderly residents from dying alone. That is especially needed in a country grappling with an aging population and high poverty rates among retirees.
The speakers are built with an artificial intelligence called “Aria” and a lamp that turns blue when processing voice commands for news, music and Internet searches. The devices can also use quizzes to monitor the memory and cognitive functions of their elderly users, which would be potentially useful for advising treatments.
However, it is difficult for SK Telecom’s clients to use the information without clear legal guidelines for handling health data on private networks.
Similar reasons might also impede domestic use of health technologies developed by Samsung Electronics, which has received approval for a smartwatch application that monitors blood pressure.
KT, SK Telecom’s telecommunications rival, is focused on business customers, providing artificial intelligence devices, such as speakers and service robots, to hotels, offices and new apartments.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has said data-driven industries would be critical in boosting a pandemic-hit economy.
Officials are preparing regulations for revised data laws that lawmakers passed in January after months of wrangling. They aim to allow businesses greater freedom in collecting and analyzing anonymous personal data without seeking individual consent.
If they work as intended, optimists say the laws would allow artificial intelligence to truly take off and pave the way for highly customized financial and healthcare services after they start in August.
However, advocate Oh Byoung-il said the changes could bring excessive privacy infringements unless robust safeguards are installed.
“Companies will always have an endless thirst for data, but you can’t give it to them all,” he said.
Doctors’ groups have also resisted government calls for legalizing telemedicine, raising concerns related to data security and a negative impact on smaller hospitals.
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