Law + Tech vs COVID-19


COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic transcending national borders, race, skin colour, culture, language, social status, religious beliefs, political ideologies, poverty divide, and digital divide. The world has to-date bore witness to over 2.5 million cumulative confirmed infected cases, and over 180,000 deaths in 215 countries. This causes a huge strain on the healthcare system, and if broken, could have drastic consequences.

Global Problem, Home Grown Solution

“This calls for urgent coordinated worldwide governmental response, as well as initiatives from the private sector and the broader community to reduce strain on our healthcare system, and to put in place better systems to earlier identify and help hidden infectious disease carriers,” said Nick Chan MH, Convenor of Tech Response to COVID-19 team, a technology lawyer and awardee of the Law Society Pro bono and Community Services Distinguished awards who has retired from the Law Society Council in 2019 and still serves in various different capacities for our profession and the wider community.

“Over 700,000 of those infected have recovered thanks to the sacrifices and hard work of medical and healthcare professionals around the world, but more can be done, more must be done in the war of humanity and compassion against COVID-19,” added Chan.

Law + Health + Tech + Social Responsibility

With affected countries having been in some form of lockdown or with some controls or restriction measures in place to manage and mitigate the surge or resurgence of infections in a globalised world, Chan said, “Smart data, data and cybersecurity, data integrity, predictive AI technologies and legal knowledge can play a proactive role in facilitating societies live under the “new normal” and enter recovery phase to alleviate the socio-economic impact caused by COVID-19.”

Chan added “we should take a privacy-by-design informed risk-based approach and use technology as an enabler to empower and mobilise community to support frontline medical staff by using technology-enabled ‘shields of defence’ to help minimise, mitigate and remediate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.” Emphasising that that an empowered community should never be underestimated in this global fight.

Chan, a partner and regional coordinator of a practice group at Squire Patton Boggs, is the Convenor of Tech Response to COVID-19 Limited, a non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) registered in Hong Kong to build and provide a technology-based response to the crisis, which can also be used to fight against other epidemics and pandemics in the future.

The primary objectives of the NGO include crowdsourcing resources, solutions and responses from the innovative and technology community (including from academia, universities, research and development centres, businesses, chambers of commerce, NGOs and the wider community) to address and respond to the challenges brought about by COVID-19 and other public healthcare crisis, helping to prevent, reduce and relieve poverty that would otherwise arise if left unaddressed.

“Positively-charged tiny droplets of water can together cause a ripple effect to turn the tides against the raging sea of fear and infection. When we collaborate and contribute our expertise, resources and boundless positive energy together, there is no limit to what us lawyers and other professionals can do to make the world a better place!” said Chan.

Lawyers are problem solvers. Solve novel problems. Dare to dream.

A truly “home grown” Hong Kong community response to combat COVID-19, Chan explained that the NGO’s tech response will initially take the form of a unique COVID-19 risk exposure identifier SmartPhone App-based system being built and updated/upgraded over time with the following purposes and features in mind:​

  1. Reduce strain on healthcare workers Better prevention and control of the spread of COVID-19 will reduce strain on healthcare professionals and our healthcare system;
  2. Effective COVID-19 contact risk identification will reduce “false positives” and false sense of security, enabling earlier identification to help pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic “silent” infectious disease carriers App users will be quickly informed of whether he/she has in a referenced period prescribed by medical experts (ie the past 14 days) came into “close contact” (ie within two metres and for an extended period) with another user who has since been confirmed as infected with COVID-19 enabling the user to make decision about seeking medical assistance and taking measures to prevent the potential further spread of COVID-19. Users do not need to recall/call to inform the NGO about when, where, how or why the user came into close contact with a confirmed case;
  3. Privacy by design – As fellow members of the Hong Kong community, and with lawyers on the team, including Stephen Wong, the Hong Kong privacy commissioner for personal data, onboard as the honorary privacy facilitator, the NGO App and systems development team fully values personal data privacy, and the NGO, being a not-for-profit non-commercial entity, has therefore decidedly taken a much different strictly privacy-by-design approach. From day one the Hong Kong developed COVID-19 contact risk identifier app will not collect sensitive personal biometric data as the team uses proprietary advanced radio signalling technology that uses anonymised data and radio signals (for example, invisible WiFi signals that already hit phones as it enters into coverage of free WiFi services offered by many coffee shops, shopping malls, public library, airport, mass transit hub etc) to ascertain proximity, and as such this Hong Kong app upon roll-out does not collect user name, user mobile number, user GPS location. This is a significant leap compared with other jurisdictions that have deployed “contact tracing” technology that collect name and send the user’s phone number to other users via Bluetooth. The app development and systems design process follows the Privacy by Design and Best Practice Guide on Mobile App Development issued by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data;
  4. Collaborative effort using the best-in-class technology from around the world – The NGO brought together otherwise business competitors, universities, centres of excellence for innovation and creativity and experts from around the world (programmers, doctors, scientists, technical domain experts, lawyers etc), so the solution can make use of applicable latest R&D and technological developments (eg Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Blockchain, Private Cloud, Data Integrity and Security, Encryption, Location Intelligence, Machine Neural Learning, Smart Data, Radio Signal Signature Profiling etc.);
  5. Enabler for individuals to not only help themselves but also to help the wider community – User’s personal data are stored only on user’s own phone with encryption that even the NGO does not have any backdoor key to, and will not be uploaded unless user opt-in to do so (eg when user becomes a confirmed case then that user may decide to share data to help others). Users and communities may request to opt-in crowd-contribution of more anonymised data to improved prediction for the benefit of the wider community (eg school, workplace, place of worship, etc) to reduce the risks of exposure;
  6. Scalable and world-class data security – The scalable system is designed to meet high-data security and integrity requirements using robust built-in security features of Microsoft Azure and deploying other measures;
  7. Proactive, predictive and not just passively reactive – Using a Six Sigma and 360o Risk Management approach to system design, this solution is aimed at holistic risk management and mitigation strategy and continuous improvement targeting the impact of COVID-19 with predictive, preventive, detection, response and recovery phases in mind;
  8. Cross-disciplinary approach that will produce workable solutions – With a cross-disciplinary team working with lawyers closely with medical, computer scientists, big data experts and scientific experts, the NGO is confident that the solution will be useful to strengthen the defence against COVID-19, and to support the frontline efforts of medical staff on the war against COVID-19;
  9. Instil better personal and public health hygiene – This solution aims to instil a self-monitor, prevention and reporting culture to prepare users on making informed choices and decisions;
  10. Rebuild confidence under the “new normal” – As the society commences its recovery phase and rebuild to normality under the “new normal”, the system will help the community rebuild, help each other and go back to lead normal lives in an informed, safer and quicker manner than without this system;
  11. Collaborative platform – This is built as a collaborate platform welcoming other NGOs, agencies, communities, individuals, organisations, schools, mass transit operators, shopping mall operators, employers and other stakeholders to do good without compromising the trust and personal data of users; and
  12. Inspire, ’do good, do well and love one another‘ – “It is better to give than to receive”, and Chan and his team members hope to inspire others to “do good, do well and love one another” and collaborate to contribute to the community during this critical time.

The initiative received global support from individuals and organisations, including Cherrypicks; Cyberport; Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks; HKUST-MIT Research Alliance Consortium; The Hong Kong and Medical Healthcare Device Industries Association; HKUST School of Engineering; Microsoft; MIT Innovation Node; MIT Media Lab; NDN Group; Smart City Consortium; Smart Sensing; Vizztech Technology; Big Data experts, microbiologists, epidemiologists, doctors, nursing schools, and Stephen Wong, the privacy commissioner for personal data.

Apps and system development, testing and beta launch is expected to be completed before school term starts again in September 2020.

As a Chinese proverb goes, “Droplets of water makes a river” and “Live the Lion Rock Spirit!” said Chan. The team welcomes more beta testers, volunteers and sponsors from all walks-of-life to join in this ‘crowdsource initiative’ to be a contributor and hero in our own ways.

Lawyers and friends, time to assemble!  

Nick Chan MH, Convenor of Tech Response to COVID-19 Team

陳曉峰律師 MH,Tech Response to COVID-19召集人

Positively-charged tiny droplets of water can together cause a ripple effect to turn the tides against the raging sea of fear and infection. When we collaborate and contribute our expertise, resources and boundless positive energy together, there is no limit to what us lawyers and other professionals can do to make the world a better place!

- Nick Chan MH