Hackers Have Some of the Best Ideas in War Against Coronavirus



Lee Dong-hoon couldn’t take any more of the bloody masks. This was January, early in the coronavirus’s sweep through South Korea, and misinformation, including rumors about contaminated businesses and phony photos of masks supposedly from Covid-19 victims, seemed to be everywhere on social media. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was releasing detailed situation reports, but they were much tougher to decipher at a glance than a scary Facebook post. So Lee, an industrial engineering student at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, decided to create a website he hoped could act, in some small way, as a counterweight.

Within a day, the self-taught coder set upCoronamap.site to track the spread of infections. He put the site online at 10 p.m. on Jan. 30 with $82 of his own money for web hosting. The following day, 2.4 million people read his Facebook post about it. Soon after, Lee enlisted 20 fellow students to help him upload the locations of infected people disclosed on government websites. The site has remained one of South Korea’s leading sources for accurate, up-to-the-minute tallies of confirmed infections and places where infected people have circulated. “I hope we have zero infections soon so that everyone’s life can get back to normal,” Lee says. “Then I will close my website.”

Apple Inc. and Google aredeveloping contact-tracing software to alert smartphone users when they come in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, but in South Korea, Taiwan, and other places, coders such as Lee have already stepped up to help keep people informed. Some are professional web developers, while others fancy themselves white-hat hackers (as in the good guys) or civic hackers who engage directly with their governments. While Asian countries aren’t unique in this regard—see ncov2019.live, created by U.S. high school student Avi Schiffman, or a list of corona-inflected privacyguidelines published by the Chaos Computer Club, Germany’s longstanding civic-hacking collective—volunteer programming appears to have helped flatten the curve and save lives. Soon after Lee put his website online, he was asked to explain it to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

In Taiwan, the government has helped coordinate civic hacking efforts. In February, after an engineer in the city of Tainan created an app that maps which stores have masks for sale near the user, its popularity quickly threatened to overwhelm him. Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, asked Google to waive the engineer’s thousands of dollars in cloud-hosting fees and provide a team to help him keep the app stable, according to localnews reports. Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Tang was a civic hacker herself before joining the cabinet in 2016. She created her government’s infection-location map and mobilized volunteers to help coordinate the app’s database with local pharmacists in real time. “It not only improves the efficiency in allocation but also just calms everybody down, because people know there’s more masks coming—that we’re not having a shortage,” Tang said last month during a visit to the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “This way, there will be no panic.”

Taiwan’s government has previously managed to wrangle a handful of volunteers to work on individual projects, but hundreds pitched in to help fight Covid’s spread. “This is indeed the first time that so many citizen hacker-community developers have developed hundreds of applications for a single issue,” Finjon Kiang, a software developer in Tainan wrote on a code-sharing site for hackers. “The government is not good at developing tools because, in general, public servants are not the main users of the tools.”

In Japan, the government has enlisted community developers, including high school kids, to help create a multilingual website for metro Tokyo and another for the whole country. “I was very surprised how the local community has strong motivation to help the government,” Hal Seki, founder of civic tech group Code for Japan, said during a recent group call that gathered about two dozen civic hackers from around Asia to share ideas. (The call lasted more than four hours.) Kenji Hiramoto, a senior Japanese government official, says such cooperation was a first for the city, and that working directly with the civic tech community made development speedier than it would have been with Japanese companies.

Some volunteers say their work is also aimed at ensuring that their governments remain transparent and protect citizens’ privacy as they expand the use of surveillance technology to stem the contagion. Kevin Chu, a 20-year-old in Singapore who codes in his spare time, says curiosity led him to take apart the government-designed TraceTogether app after it launched last month. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency had assured the public that the app, which recorded and relayed users’ location data, was voluntary and would strictly limit who could use the findings. Yet Chu found pointers to a government data-collection agency embedded in lines of code. He published his findings about the potential privacy flaw online, then contacted the developers, who updated the app to remove it. “I like to find out how things work,” Chu told Bloomberg Businessweek via email. “Individual efforts can be important in verifying claims that an app developer has put forward.”

That’s not so easy in authoritarian countries such as China, where governments have taken a more centralized and heavy-handed role in developing and deploying apps that can be used as digital fences, and where officials are less inclined to pay attention to white-hat hackers like South Korea’s Lee Doo-hee. A hacker turned startup founder and reality TV star, Lee is leading a team of student coders to develop amask inventory website similar to the one in Taiwan. Government officials reached out to him and about 100 other developers, offering to provide the data and cloud hosting. “Civic hacking can make the government change,” says Lee, who notes that it serves as an important outlet in a country with a history of street protests. “This movement isn’t something that will go away in the future. This culture will be accelerated more and more.”

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