The use of innovative technologies in the fight against COVID-19 and its political implications


The use of innovative technologies in the fight against COVID-19 

and its political implications


By Marie Kezel





From "contactless" technologies and virtual medical consultations to cleaning and delivery robots, we observe a wide use of innovative technologies in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic that started in December 2019. However, some of these technologies can also come to represent a threat to fundamental liberties, undermining the values of democratic governments.

Battling epidemics requires the monitoring of populations to understand and then limit the spread of disease. Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Some of these measures impose severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, privacy, and other human rights. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world.

East Asian countries have demonstrated that a robust regime of surveillance can be essential to fighting a pandemic. Hence, western democracies must rise to meet the need for “democratic surveillance” to protect their populations. However, for how much health emergencies like the coronavirus crisis highlight the strengths of powerful surveillance tools often deployed by authoritarian states such as China, liberal democracies need to find ways to take advantage of AI-related surveillance while ensuring that these technologies don’t infringe dangerously on the rights of individuals (WRIGHT, 2020).



The use of innovative technologies in the fight against COVID-19

 The coronavirus pandemic, which, according to the latest assessment has taken over 160,000 lives and affected nearly two and a half million people in the world, is mobilizing all the countries' forces. Including technological ones.

Delivery robots, connected wristbands, medical teleconsultations, disinfecting robots, drones, artificial intelligence detecting the temperature of passengers in train stations and airports, smartphone applications (BOUEE, 2020; RECOQUILLE 2020). The world uses the full range of technologies at its disposal to contain the epidemic, but often at the cost of a restriction of individual liberties.

China used its arsenal of surveillance tools to tackle the pandemic. These techniques range from deploying hundreds of thousands of neighbourhood monitors to log the movements and temperatures of individuals, to the mass surveillance of mobile phone, rail, and flight data to track down people who had travelled to affected regions. These technologies, first experimented against the Uighurs people as denounced by Human Rights Watch, have been massively applied to the general population (HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH 2019; SEIBT 2019).

State-run rail companies, airlines, and the major telecom providers all require customers to present government-issued identity cards to buy SIM cards or tickets, enabling unusually precise mass surveillance of individuals who travelled through certain regions.

Colour-coded smartphone apps tag people as green (free to travel through city checkpoints) or as orange or red (subject to restrictions on movement). Authorities in Beijing have employed facial recognition algorithms to identify commuters who are not wearing a mask or who are not wearing one properly (WRIGHT, N. 2020).

Democratic countries in East Asia are also using expansive surveillance powers to battle the COVID-19.

South Korea has so far successfully curbed the spread of COVID-19 using classic public health surveillance through large-scale testing. But Seoul has also intrusively tracked down potentially infected individuals by looking at credit card transactions, CCTV footage, and other data. Local authorities have released personal data, sometimes with the consequence that individuals can be identified publicly. Korean officials can also enforce self-quarantine through a location-tracking smartphone app.

Taiwan has kept the number of cases significantly low by employing strict surveillance of people coming into the country and widely distributing that information. In February, for instance, Taiwan announced that all hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies across the country could access their patients’ travel histories by integrating public- and private-sector databases (WRIGHT, N. 2020).

Just as in South Korea, officials in Taiwan also use phone applications to enforce self-quarantine measures on suspected infected individuals.

Hong Kong, for its part, issues all new arrivals an electronic wristband that monitors whether they violate quarantine whilst Singapore has kept a lid on the pandemic using the investigative powers of the police: a team of digital detectives monitors those in quarantine and refusal to cooperate with public health requirements is illegal (WRIGHT, N. 2020).

China, Singapore, and Russia have gone even further, using systems with cameras installed in the streets, which use facial recognition to check that a person does not go out.

Location data are also widely used to track the virus. Among others, South Korea, Singapore and Israel are tracing the path of an infected person in the days before he or she became ill, they try to identify those who may have been infected, to test them in turn, and then impose a quarantine on them.

In Israel, the Internal Security Service (Shin Bet) has begun to use sophisticated technology and telecom data to track civilians. In addition to the applications based on geolocation like the "Hamagen" (shield) app which has surpassed one million downloads in a week, the Ministry of Defence has given it support for research conducted by another start-up, Vocalis Health, which is trying to develop an application enabling health professionals to detect, by the sound of their voice alone, whether a person is likely to have been infected (BFMTV, 2020). 

As for Russia, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova said that geolocation data will be used in Moscow to monitor whereabouts of novel coronavirus patients who are receiving treatment at home (TASS, 2020).

On the other side of the Pacific, national media reported on March 18 that the U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak. On April 10, Google and Apple officially announced a partnership on the creation of a contact-tracing technology. People would have to opt-in to the system, but it has the potential to monitor about a third of the world’s population (GURMAN, 2020).

Reportedly, public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection.

In the European Union, a group of experts and scientists has just announced that it is developing a smartphone technology to monitor people affected by the virus. The application will keep track of phones that were in close proximity to each other. If one of the owners tests positive, it will be easy to trace back and identify potentially infected people.

Among other countries, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and Spain have also, following a demand of the European Union, asked telephone operators to share data with the authorities in a bid to collect aggregated and anonymized data. This practice a priori respects the European legal framework, in particular, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) and the ePrivacy Directive, which allows such data to be processed anonymously or with the consent of the individual, according to certain procedures.

These data, which are anonymized, are supposed to help governments to observe whether the population is complying with containment or to map concentrations and movements of customers in risk areas, for example (MERTENS 2020; SFEZ, 2020).

European countries are also looking individually into the possibility of tracking their citizens.

In France for example, the new Analysis, Research and Expertise Committee, CARE, which advises the government, thinks about geolocation to combat coronavirus.

This committee was set up on March 24th with the aim of "enlightening public authorities" on "innovative approaches" to fight the epidemic (GUILLEMOLES 2020). It has rapidly been criticized for lacking a representative of the CNIL (National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties) or a Fundamental Freedoms lawyer (SFEZ, 2020; DE FOURNAS, 2020).

Among the innovative approaches the Committee proposed is "the opportunity for a digital strategy to identify people who have been in contact with infected people", says the Élysée. This means the use of private location data, extracted from mobile phones, to identify people who have been in contact with infected persons. The idea would be to use geolocation data to accompany the end of containment in order to avoid a second epidemic wave while waiting for a vaccine.

The same idea is being developed in Spain (CHALLAND 2020).

Regardless of State decisions, some private entities have already created mobile applications combining health data collection and location. The French web agency ITSS, for example, has launched the CoronApp application, where users can indicate, voluntarily and with medical proof, that they are coronavirus carriers. If uncontaminated users cross or have crossed paths with contaminated users, they receive a notification, but not the name of the person.

Besides, like China, France started to use drones to track people’s movements. A decision that the Rights Defender Jacques Toubon rapidly condemned: "There is a provision in our country that is very strongly entrenched in our legal framework, and that is article 9 of the Civil Code, which protects privacy" (FRANCE INFO, 2020).

The use of drones has also been reported in Belgium to control the people who would go to camping and vacation centres despite the travel ban (J.C, S.G, 2020).

Other countries like Poland developed more intrusive systems. Warsaw manages COVID-19 patients with policing measures, mobilizing surveillance tools to ensure that they comply with containment. People in quarantine must regularly take a selfie from their home through a geolocating app, otherwise, the police are warned and can impose a fine of up to 5,000 Zlotys, i.e. 1,000 euros (KAHN, 2020).



Risks and threats

One of the biggest long-term impacts of the September 11 attacks was the adoption of expanded surveillance measures and practices in the United States and other democracies, by both the public and private sectors. Similarly, one of COVID-19’s most important long-term impacts could be the complete reshaping of digital surveillance across the globe, prompted by the public-health need to more closely monitor citizens.

Just as the September 11 attacks ushered in new surveillance practices in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic might produce a similar effect in many nations around the world. Afflicted countries are all eager to better control their citizens. Every functioning state now has a public health strategy to tackle COVID-19 that emphasizes both monitoring residents and trying to influence their behaviour.
So far though, neither the United States nor European countries have used the widespread and intrusive surveillance methods applied in East Asia but the western governments face huge pressure to increase their surveillance capabilities to ward off the pandemic (WRIGHT, N. 2020).

“The balance between privacy and pandemic policy is a delicate one,” Al Gidari, director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society said. “The problem here is that this is not a law school exam. Technology can save lives, but if the implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk.”

In the case of the United States for example: although the government is reportedly not seeking to collect and maintain a database of Americans’ whereabouts, the U.S. plan to rely on the Silicon Valley companies, represent a sensitive issue. Indeed, these companies faced a severe backlash in 2013, following disclosures about the role of tech company data in surveillance by the National Security Agency, made public by agency contractor Edward Snowden. 

“Privacy is the first to go when there are national security issues,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist who covered the Snowden revelations as a journalist (ROMM, DWOSKIN, TIMBERG, 2020).

Making Google part of the national emergency response caused privacy advocates to ask what would happen with the data. The law is completely unclear on whether this data can also be used by government agencies ranging from public health authorities to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Furthermore, if potential patients must register with a Google account using their real name, it could dissuade certain groups of individuals from getting screened. Taking the example of undocumented immigrants living through the coronavirus crisis. For those who have the symptoms of COVID-19, a trip to the emergency room could bring a death sentence: deportation to a far-off country even less equipped to handle the threat of the pandemic. If even a small fraction of undocumented immigrants feels unsafe getting medical treatment, the virus could expand.

Similarly, Americans who have outstanding police warrants may also be dissuaded from handing their information to public-private partnerships. And some Americans will avoid registration on ideological grounds to avoid giving corporate entities or the government their intimate health details.

According to some experts of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, it’s not that far out to imagine government officials already using current tracking software such as HealthMap (which scours social media sites for flu-related words to identify incipient flu outbreaks) or Flu Near You (which asks its users to self-identify their flulike symptoms) to impose quarantines or otherwise restrict people’s movements.

But despite successes using these apps for the flu, the effectiveness of this sort of mass surveillance system is decidedly unclear, especially if expanded more broadly by relying on mobilephones’ locations and internet history. Previously, systems might have been able to guess who had seasonal flu based on their Google queries, for example, but in the midst of this pandemic nearly every American is running these same searches.

Moreover, using artificial intelligence to determine who can leave their home or take transit raises the risk of AI bias. In the U.S., where housing is appallingly segregated, it’s easy to imagine how AI could lead to a form of COVID-19 redlining or otherwise replicate the worst shortcomings of “predictive policing,” which often draws on racially biased crime data to recommend even more racially biased policing.

Ultimately, there is the threat this technology poses to civil rights and the rule of law. Government access to this type of tracking and personal data means officials will have the power to exclude people from society, effectively subjecting them to home confinement without trial, appeal, or any semblance of due process. It is an appealing response when the government gets that decision right, but a chilling power if abused.

The example of China beautifully illustrates the risks these abuses could entail. Residents have been forced to install phone apps that track their movements and assign them a red, green or yellow coronavirus score. If someone gets a bad score then suddenly public transportation, work, and school are out of bounds. And, as people in China are learning, when a computer program quarantines you, that automated judgment can be impossible to challenge and reverse. Disturbingly, there’s growing evidence that the expanded behavioural tracking will stick around long after the crisis is over, giving Beijing a new way to track religious minorities and political dissidents (FOX CAHN, VEISZLEMLEIN, 2020).

Other relevant examples are offered by the case of Israel and Russia. 

Since 2002, mass surveillance of citizens by the Shin Bet security service and, therefore, "some of the actions denounced by Edward Snowden during the NSA wiretapping scandal”, have been permitted by law in Israel, notes Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

"This overwhelming power of the security services was previously limited to missions concerning national security," but this time the government has extended it to a civil case, without consulting the only democratically elected body, the Knesset (MRAFFKO, 2020).

As for Russia which, at the beginning of the year, started employing advanced facial-recognition technologies, artificial intelligence and video surveillance in its struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, the International Observatory for Human Rights notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is now giving Russian authorities an opportunity to test new powers and technology.

In this context, the country’s privacy and free-speech advocates worry the government is building sweeping new surveillance capabilities. In Moscow, a network of 100,000 cameras has been equipped with facial recognition technology (BALL, 2020). On March 18, Moscow’s police chief, Oleg Baranov, claimed that the surveillance system had already identified 200 people violating the quarantine rules. “We want there to be even more cameras so that there is no dark corner or side street left,” Baranov said, adding that 9,000 cameras more cameras would be installed.

Russia’s track record of rights violations raises questions about whether authorities will achieve the right balance between restricting civil rights, including privacy, with the need to fight the virus. Russia’s enthusiasm for surveillance before the pandemic gives rise to concern that an expanded use of these technologies to fight COVID-19 might not end after the pandemic is over.
Russian authorities also seem to be unwilling to even acknowledge the intrusiveness of facial recognition technology. Russian courts recently rejected two lawsuits by activists against the use of facial recognition over concerns of privacy violations.

“We’re talking about adding enormous numbers of people to the databases to fight this pandemic”, Sarkis Darbinyan said. As a lawyer for the RosKomSvoboda, a non-government organisation that tracks online freedoms in Russia, he has supported the lawsuits filed against facial recognition in Moscow. “As far as we know, when a person is ordered into quarantine, their face is added to the watchlist automatically” (SVENSSON, 2020).

In the European Union, the idea of using apps and geolocation also raises many obstacles related to the respect of medical confidentiality and the protection of private data.
In compliance with European regulations, in order to set up individual monitoring, the countries need laws that will state precisely why they need such data, what it is used for, who has access to it, how long it will be kept and what control measures are planned, explained Yann Padova, a lawyer with the law firm Baker McKenzie Paris and former secretary-general of the Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés (CNIL), (GUILLEMOLES, 2020). "As long as this framework and these guarantees are not defined, the use of the data will not comply with European rules and in particular with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)", she stated.

With regards to data relating to health, Article 9 of the GDPR prohibits the processing of such data. However, a second paragraph lists situations where this rule does not apply, such as when "processing is necessary on grounds of public interest in the field of public health, such as the protection against serious cross-border threats to health".

"With the current pandemic, it's easy to fall under these exceptions provided for in the GDPR, so it [geolocation app] may pass," said lawyer Zoé Vilain. "Each section of the DPGR makes it clear that the measure must be proportionate to the purpose and limited in time […] but any recourse will take time," she explained (DE FOURNAS, 2020).

Yann Padova, a data protection expert in France warns: "Tracing the entire population seems to me to go very far. I fear a ratchet effect, where it will be difficult to go back. Because we've never seen the government give up a data source once it gets its hands on it. There is no shortage of precedents" (GUILLEMOLES, 2020).

In France, the development of the Stop-Covid application based on geo-location that would allow to trace the coronavirus contaminations will be discussed by the Parliament but no vote of approval will be taken by the legislative body which ensures the representation of the people. This decision of the government to bypass the vote, a key marker of the democracy, is frown upon by several political parties. (HAUSALTER, L. 2020).

The European project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity which brings together 130 researchers and scientists from 8 European countries wants the European Union application to follow strict European rules in terms of data protection and respect for privacy. The phone on which the application will be installed, which should be up and running in early April, will emit a Bluetooth signal over a short distance and register all nearby devices anonymously. In this way, it will not be necessary to access the population's location data. The information collected will be anonymized, as required by the EU's general data protection regulation. Only health authorities would be able to access this data.

However, while the European Commission ensures that the protection of our personal data is respected, NGOs warn of the risks that this surveillance poses to the individuals' freedoms. "Governments are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers to contain COVID-19", says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a statement. These powers could "invade our privacy, curtail freedom of expression and weigh heavily on vulnerable groups," the statement reads. "Authorities must prove that such measures are effective, scientific, necessary and proportionate" (OUEST FRANCE 2020).

On a State level, in Belgium, the League for Human Rights warned against the unprecedented measures taken by the government, which now has exceptional powers. "Every effort must be made to ensure that the exceptional measures taken to deal with COVID-19 do not involve unjustified restrictions on rights and freedoms”. Olivia Venet, president of the League, adds: "It is out of the question that our democracy should turn into a pseudo-democracy. On the other hand, taking measures to react quickly and effectively is necessary". According to the League, to protect democracy, the restrictions on citizens' rights and freedoms must be proportionate and necessary. Further, it adds that exceptional measures can only be taken for the duration of the crisis (JORIS, 2020).

The same concerns are raised over the project of a French geolocating application. French Senate President Gérard Larcher called for the system to be "framed by law, limited in time and under the imperative control of Parliament" (GUILLEMOLES, 2020).

More broadly in all European democracies, the use of mass surveillance tools against the COVID-19 could have disastrous consequences for liberties, 3 Harvard researchers explain, (Abecassis, Ghosh and Loveridge) calling for a definition of fundamental rights and duties in the digital world. They note that public health imperatives have collided with such fundamental democratic principles as the freedom to come and go. There is every reason to believe that they will also come into conflict with the protection of privacy. In Europe, many countries announced their intention to deploy a powerful, intrusive tracking tool using mobile phone location data to track the movements of virus carriers, in order to trace their contacts and curb the spread of the pandemic. The researchers warn that, as we are moving into uncharted territory in the use of technology in our societies, the worst would be, under the pressure of urgency, to rush into a path without having specified the conditions or having made sure that we control the consequences. They give a few principles towards the preservation of democratic fundamental liberties.

First, these monitoring systems should be temporary and reversible. In democracies, the state of emergency is not supposed to survive once the crisis has been contained. It is not a question of "normalizing" mass surveillance tools: they should remain abnormal, exceptional.

Second, these arrangements should be strictly proportionate. The usefulness of each piece of data should be strictly demonstrated with regard to the objective of curbing the epidemic, as well as the field of interest.

Third, not everything is acceptable on the pretext of greater efficiency. While the use of artificial intelligence cannot be ruled out as a matter of principle to curb the pandemic, there can be no question of entering into the level of social control enforced by countries like China, nor of delegating to algorithms decisions that cannot be appealed from individual containment.

Last but not least, the European democracies must ask themselves why they needed to improvise principles of exception for personal data and surveillance in the midst of a crisis. This is, in fact, a structural problem: the major fundamental rights texts governing democratic principles and the balance between individual freedoms and collective needs apply very poorly in the digital world. This blind spot in the data protection framework should challenge the governments. Calling for an international effort to define fundamental rights and duties in the digital world after the crisis would show that we are not blindly committing ourselves to these measures, without worrying about their long-term consequences on the balance of our societies (ABECASSIS, GHOSH, LOVERIDGE, 2020).



Possible repercussions on political environments and democratic processes

The postponing of elections in at least 47 countries around the world in the last months, clearly demonstrate how the sanitary crisis has already disrupted democratic processes (International IDEA, 2020). In the future, the use of technologies to fight the spread of the virus could cause further disruption. Indeed, the potentially long-lasting reinforcement of mass-surveillance technologies could have many impacts on political dynamics that were already unfolding before the containment measures or that could be triggered by the crisis.

The right and ability to protest is an important feature of democracies as it allows the people to express themselves on political and social matters. However, the increased use of mass-surveillance technologies enabled by the fight against coronavirus could allow authorities and political powerhouses to husher down contestations.

In India where anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests have been unfolding for the past months, the tracing applications and facial recognition technologies deployed during the coronavirus outbreak could act as deterrence and prevent further unrest after the lifting of the quarantine (PUNDIR, P. 2020).

Similarly, in Algeria and France long-running anti-government protests have been put on hold because of the pandemic. In case of abuses, generalized access to personal data and wider geo-tracking possibility could, as in authoritarian states, become a real threat for the political oppositions.

The example of Hong-Kong’s unrest (started in 2019) perfectly illustrates how authorities might feel attracted to using the newly developed surveillance means in times of civil unrest. Even though the Hong Kong people proved it could challenge the Chinese authoritarianism by developing strategies to trump surveillance tools (MAS, L. 2019), there is an relevant risk that the new technologies deployed by law enforcement agencies and state actors around the globe might dissuade people to take the streets. Digital repression not only decreases the likelihood that a protest will occur but also reduces the chances that a government will face large, sustained mobilization efforts (KENDALL-TAYLOR, FRANTZ, WRIGHT, 2020).

The measures of “public health surveillance”, using the words of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which pass off as legitimate in the face of the coronavirus crisis also could jeopardize the political changes that were taking place, as China’s digital authoritarian model spreads. In Russia for instance, as president Putin was planning to hold a national vote on whether he could extend his term limits as far as 2036, the opposition movement called for protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but the containment measures prevented the demonstrations from taking place. With the important development of facial-recognition equipped street cameras during the crisis, the odds for the protests to resume after the virus-induced lockdowns are quite low.

As experts expect the coronavirus to stay for at least a few years, there are reasons to believe that the mass-surveillance technologies will also settle in. Hence, the democratic lives of many countries around the world are threatened as the prospect of being monitored might tame down civil movements.

The COVID-19 has already brought changes to the way people could take the streets. For instance, in Tel-Aviv, the Israelis maintained social distancing while protesting coronavirus measures. Since the beginning of the crisis, several movements have organized online protests, using internet technologies to their advantage. In Israel, nearly 600,000 people tuned into a virtual protest on Facebook Live against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to close parliament. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg moved her weekly school strike online, with the hashtag #digitalstrike (DE HALDEVANG, M. 2020).



Balancing technology and democracy: The Taiwan model

Taiwan is so far one of the countries which has best performed in curbing the spread of the virus and it is now regarded by Europe as a country that has succeeded in combining the use of big data and widespread surveillance while preserving democracy (HERBECK, SIMMORE, TARANTINO, 2020). Indeed, Taiwan has in recent years developed a new political culture by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than its detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus.

Taiwan relies on transparency (the Digital Minister live-streams all her meetings) and on social inputs rather than on machine learning alone by using community-driven applications developed by entrepreneurs, in partnership with the government and the "g0v", a community of hacktivists that promotes the transparency of government information and is committed to developing information platforms and tools for citizens to participate in society. Taiwan also uses several citizen-built and operated platforms as well as applications allowing better access to crucial information (like the availability of face-masks in the nearest stores and pharmacies). 

Bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, “hacktivism” (activism through the building of quick-and-dirty but effective proofs of concept for online public services), and participatory collective action through various smartphone applications have been central to the country’s success in coordinating a consensual and transparent set of responses to the coronavirus.

Contrary to a technocratic, top-down vision of the future of AI, in which a small digital elite, concentrated in a few tech hubs and largely separated from the concerns of the rest of the population, produces tools meant to be used by the rest of the population, the Taiwanese response, based on an ethos of broad digital participation and community-driven tool development, was fast, precise, and democratic.

By spreading participation in digital development broadly through society, Taiwan avoided both technocracy and technophobia, maintaining trust and the two-way flow of information in the face of a crisis. This emerging Taiwanese model holds powerful promise beyond the current crisis as debates about technological development tend to focus on the Chinese technocratic-authoritarian surveillance state and the corporate-capitalist approach in the United States.

Taiwan offers another path. It has harnessed technology as a tool of democratic creativity and by doing so, Taiwan has created a model that holds great promise in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus (LANIER, GLEN WEYL, 2020).
However, this model, despite being democratic still implies an important reduction of fundamental freedoms and rights like the right for privacy, which makes it unlikely to be replicated in the western liberal democracies (BABINET, 2020).



The opposite side of the spectrum

If the misuse of new technologies can be harmful, we must also consider that the opposite way of dealing with the crisis, denying all access to internet technology, also entails many dangers.

During a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, access to timely and accurate information is crucial. Imposing internet shutdowns, as several governments have done, violates multiple rights and can be deadly during a health crisis. As Human Rights Watch stated, intentionally shutting down or restricting access to the internet violates multiple rights and can be deadly during a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 31, the organisation urged the governments that are currently imposing an internet shutdown, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and Myanmar, to lift them immediately to save lives.

Indeed, people use the internet for updates on health measures, movement restrictions, and relevant news to protect themselves and others. “Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate. “During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control”. The internet is also critical to communicate with doctors, family, and friends. For many children and others seeking an education, it is needed to continue learning as schools shutter around the world.

Nearly 4 years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council first condemned measures to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and called on countries to refrain from such measures. On March 27, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all governments to end all internet and telecommunication shutdowns. “Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, fact-based and relevant information on the disease and its spread and response must reach all people, without exception,” a statement said.

Besides, as Human Rights Watch recalled, under international law, governments must ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest. Hence, "officials should never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to stop the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to express political views, and doing so during a health crisis can cost lives," the organisation said (HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, 2020).




In times of worldwide spread public-health crisis, the Internet and innovative technologies proved necessary. However, there must be shields to misuses and abuses to protect the fundamental rights and freedom.

Liberal democracies should identify which methods practised in East Asia to contain the COVID-19 pandemic are worthy of emulation and avoid those requiring intrusive surveillance. Democracies should especially steer digital technology companies away from data grabs and toward developing effective, transparent tools that aggressively shield individual privacy.

Indeed, as much as mass surveillance systems might seem like a smart way to fight the pandemic, these programs can get it wrong. There is a profound risk that these types of artificial intelligence systems will mirror the prejudices of their human designers, falsely targeting marginalized groups. There is also the risk that they drive many of those who have been infected into the shadows, worsening the spread. And once the period of contagion is over, these emergency surveillance tools may easily be co-opted for other purposes (FOX CAHN, VEISZLEMLEIN, 2020).

In the weeks ahead, liberal democracies must be vigilant as the changes they accept in times of crisis can last far longer than the immediate crisis.
To recall, in the weeks following 9/11, the US Congress hastily expanded surveillance powers through the Patriot Act. Many of those emergency provisions were originally supposed to expire more than a decade ago but are still in force today. Avoiding the pitfall of enabling "temporarily" mass surveillance and liberties restrictions throughout digital tools, that would eventually be there to stay, is paramount (FOX CAHN, VEISZLEMLEIN, 2020).







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