South Korea’s biggest telecom firm is banding with Bill Gates to develop next-generation quarantine methods. The $10-million project may stir uncomfortable thoughts in those who suspect the billionaire of having a sinister agenda.
KT, the Seongnam-based multinational giant, plans to use its expertise and access to communications data to identify early and predict the spread of infectious diseases. Smartphones could be used, for example, to measure body temperature with a sensor and to collect other symptoms from a user. And geotracking data helps monitor the migration of people and their contacts.
Over the next three years the company wants to develop AI-based algorithms that will turn such raw data into a system that would give an early warning about an unfolding epidemic. KT also wants a computer model to predict how an infection would spread. The cost of the research, called “A Next Generation Surveillance Study for Epidemic Preparedness,” is 12 billion won ($9.7 million) and half of it will be covered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, KT announced on Sunday.
The collaboration was first envisioned in 2018 and seriously negotiated since April last year, according to Korean media. The Gates’ foundation reportedly showed particular interest in the research because South Korea has high penetration of 5G smartphones and the infrastructure already in place to enable collection of large amounts of data through them.
“The use of mobile technology and sensors, paired with smart data analysis, can help address some of the challenges countries face in timely and effective response to disease outbreaks,” said Andrew Trister, deputy director of the global health program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bill and Melinda Gates are known as vocal advocates of spending more resources on preparing for outbreaks. Both praised South Korea for its response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Some however can’t help but see sinister undertones beyond the philanthropy. Just last week an Italian MP delivered a fierce rant in parliament, calling for the arrest of Bill Gates. Sara Cunial accused the billionaire of masterminding “dictatorial control plans on global politics” and using the current situation to further them.
That view admittedly is not widespread, though the hardships of Covid-19 lockdowns seem to fuel all sorts of connect-the-dots sort of thinking. 5G technology has won a place among coronavirus conspiracy theories that have even led to several reported vandalism attacks on mobile towers in the UK.
The investment made be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into the South Korean surveillance-for-public-health program may raise legitimate concerns about the privacy and safety of personal medical data.