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A Team Effort

July 23, 2024 by Alistair Enser

I hope you had a good Easter weekend, and that you were able to enjoy the weather in some way or another.

As we enter week four of the lockdown, it strikes me that it’s remarkable how quickly we get used to new ways of working and living. At Reliance High-Tech, we continue to be extremely busy as we work to protect our clients’ people, property and reputations. Whether keeping key workers in the NHS safe or securing commercial premises that now lie empty, our teams are hard at work.

A team effort

Everyone is making their own contribution, of course. And it’s not just about those at the front line. If you stayed at home this weekend, you were playing an important role in the containment of COVID-19. I am pleased to see that the plateauing of cases and deaths in Italy and reduction in Spain I pointed to last week has continued; a development that owes as much to disciplined social distancing as the valiant efforts of those on the frontline.

Here at home, it appears we have not yet hit a similar plateau, although I have read that the NHS is holding up well in terms of numbers of admissions against those anticipated. The private and public sector alike is stepping up to produce the equipment that those on the frontline need – from PPE to ventilators – while the prospects of 100,000 tests each day by the end of the month now sounds more realistic.

Innovation in the face of adversity

Examples of innovation are all around us. Local cafes and restaurants have turned to providing takeaways and even home deliveries. Gyms are holding online workouts while doctors are holding remote surgeries. At Reliance High-Tech, we are providing remote solutions to customers’ needs, whether configuring personal protection devices or monitoring empty commercial premises.

As a business that has invested in its IT skills, security and infrastructure over many years, providing remote support is not a new endeavour for us. It is, however, something that has come to the fore in the ‘new normal’. And while it’s perhaps too soon to ruminate on what the world will look like after COVID-19, I will over the next few weeks consider some of the trends that are emerging as we adapt to the new world in which we live.

Life or liberty

One issue that has emerged is that of surveillance and, more specifically, how video surveillance and the tracking of smartphone users have helped contain the pandemic in some countries.

In China, drones have been used to enforce the ban on gathering in public, while smartphone apps confirm whether an individual can travel outside a particular area. Singapore meanwhile offers citizens a voluntary app that alerts people who have come into close contact with anyone with the virus. As an article in The Times noted: “Data surveillance formerly used in the pursuit of terrorists is suddenly being employed to track ordinary, law-abiding people because they are, or might turn out to be, sick.”

This tech is not just being used by autocratic or authoritarian regimes. In democratic South Korea, which has been particularly successful in containing the coronavirus, authorities can access mobile phone data to track people with the virus, alerting others when those who are potentially contagious enter a building.

A tech too far?

Well before the pandemic China faced criticism for an over-reaching surveillance state. Yet the use of technology in China, Singapore and South Korea has undoubtedly contained the virus in ways that Western European countries have failed to do. Wuhan, where the virus first appeared in China, is now open again, while the charts reveal precisely how effective tracking strategies have been in South Korea. Contrast that with Italy, where it was estimated that around one million people were still travelling in and out of Milan during the country’s first week of lockdown.

As I explained recently in an article about facial recognition, citizens in Western Europe are naturally concerned about any use of technology that infringes civil liberties. They are fiercely protective of freedoms that smartphone location tracking undermines. Perhaps their fears are understandable: while data gathered from smartphones for tracking purposes is anonymised, research from 2019 suggests that only 15 demographic characteristics in location data are needed to identify 99.98 per cent of individuals.

Strike a balance

Yet exceptional circumstances demand extraordinary responses – which is evident in the fact that rivals Google and Apple are working together on smartphone tracking technology. Meanwhile the tech arm of the National Health Service, NHSX, is also working on an app. Given the battle to control the pandemic we must consider whether use of this technology in these unparalleled times is justified. Crucially, GDPR allows exceptions in the public interest, so permits the use of tracking tech in the fight against the virus.

Clearly, any use of tracking tech must be voluntary – but that is precisely the case with the app being developed by Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, which monitors users’ health alongside their movements. And any broader use of this data by the UK Government must come with a sunset clause so it may be reviewed once the virus is contained.

It seems ridiculous not to use technology as another weapon in the fight against this virus. But doing so must be controlled and subject to oversight: a balance between effectiveness and freedom must be sought.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts!