COVID-19 and Digital Technologies has been saved
COVID-19 and Digital Technologies
The impacts on Privacy, Security and Digital Ethics
Decisions taken in a time of crisis are rarely optimal but are necessary and what might seem like a good idea may have lasting implications and unintended consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the mandate for technologies to be applied broadly within society; posing potential threats to our fundamental values.
Written by Alexander Galt & Jan-Jan Lowijs
Utilising new technologies in a time of crisis can help towards solving the immediate problems that are being faced, however we may be realising capabilities that would otherwise be undesirable. Whilst we are willing for these to be mobilised during this pandemic in the name of public health and safety, there is a concern that this sets a precedent for the continuation of these uses of technology. Without forethought, public deliberation and safeguards these applications may result in a new normal that society never got the chance to object too.
The technological Pandora’s box was opened in crisis most recently via the mass expansion of surveillance apparatus post 9/11. We are again seeing the extension of state surveillance techniques via the monitoring and restriction of movement of people as part of COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Some examples include the use of mobile phone signal tracing in Israel to trace the movements and interactions of people who have tested positive, and identify those who should be under quarantine. These ‘time-limited’ proposals are reported to make use of previously undisclosed data gathered in counter-terrorism efforts. Similar measures were also being considered in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the UK, with a direct reference by the UK Health Secretary of a trade-off between civil liberties, privacy and other public interests. Recent attention has focussed on Bluetooth based contact tracing applications, with the main divergences arising between a decentralised approach to the storage of contact data, as being pursued in Germany and Austria, as opposed to a centralised approach as seen in France and the UK, despite increasing privacy, security and efficacy concerns.
Robots and Drones
Along with digital surveillance there is also the use of drones by the police to enforce social distancing by filming public areas and ordering people back to their homes during lockdown. Other robots have body temperature scanning abilities and patrol enclosed public spaces to detect those who may be displaying symptoms of fever. However these autonomous robots also have a disinfectant function via mounted bulbs that emit concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light which destroys bacteria, viruses and other harmful microbes by damaging their DNA and RNA, stopping them from multiplying. Whilst these applications of technology have entered society with a reduced level of scrutiny, the necessity for long term accountability and societal deliberation grows stronger.
AI and Computing
Less controversial than the capabilities of current surveillance technology is the mobilisation of AI in combating COVID-19, specifically towards informing, global forecasting and finding a cure. These applications push back against some of the negative narrative around AI - highlighting its capability to pursue strictly positive ends. To exemplify, we've recently joined forces with Omring to fight uncertaintly and isoation among Dutch elderly in times of COVID-19 by introducing digital human Wendy, who answers questions about the virus.
However we must keep in mind that the robustness of these models is dependent on the data that goes in, especially with reports of data quality issues and reporting of numbers of cases. Whilst technologies such as quantum computing promise the ability to enhance certain analytical processes, the technology is still in its infancy and hasn’t been able to be leveraged for this crisis. In the meantime we all have the ability to contribute by lending our spare computing power towards collectively identifying compounds that might be effective for a COVID-19 vaccine. Robert Kirkpatrick, then director of UN Global Pulse rightly said in 2018 that "ethical decision-making requires minimizing not only the risk of data misuse, but also that of missed use, that is, of leaving crucial data resources untapped in the global fight against famine, plague and war."
We must also be vigilant of the information that we consume throughout the pandemic, especially since the moderation of online content has also been left to AI due to workers being sent home resulting in misinformation efforts against COVID-19 and other harmful content being managed by automated systems without a human in the loop. Other technology companies have also stepped forward to support organisations in providing clear and accurate information to the public by securing the information supply chain.
Privacy, Security and Digital Ethics
The examples given above highlight the complex interaction between technology and society at a time of global crisis. The way that we develop and use technologies says something about us and our shared values such as privacy, security, autonomy and health. This goes for each of us as individuals, but also holds for companies inventing new technology and governments deploying them. The balance between positive action and overreach is a delicate one, with the potential to have consequences that last beyond the situation we face today. We will be remembered for how we act during this crisis.
All of us must do what we can to maintain solidarity during this period of unrest. We must focus on our common societal goals of supporting those who are working towards managing and solving the impacts of COVID-19 whilst ensuring security, upholding privacy laws and maintaining ethical values. Developing and using technologies responsibly demands careful evaluation of what it means to our collective values – times of crisis require no less than this commitment; from leaders to frontline staff alike.