The SARS-CoV-2 virus poses an urgent challenge to already weak global architecture and highlights the importance of the social. Human mobility, viral spread, and exacerbated vulnerabilities are the three key prongs in this crisis which is spreading faster than the political and cultural spheres can keep pace. Electronic information and communication ecosystems are intimately intertwined with this upheaval, necessitating a critical examination of the role they are playing.
First, digital communication networks are fulfilling a much more resilient role than other infrastructures, including medical systems, which are ill-prepared to handle the mounting health crisis and are not rapidly scalable. To an extent, the entry cost, openness, and flexibility of the internet brought it back into the orbit of a common good where everyone can use digital resources, subject to their state of connectivity and the prevailing rule of law. A 29 percent increase in internet traffic and network stability (according to Akamai), illustrates this. Another proof of flexibility is the increased demand for cloud services since February from operators such as Amazon or Microsoft (the growth is similar for Chinese operators). This connectivity has been boosting many community initiatives whose creative forms surpass the modalities of State and private actors.
Three months into the pandemic, digital resources are being widely used to consolidate social and medical responses. But the pressure to take action has also led to an overlap of controlling, liberticidal, and even destabilizing responses, undertaken at the expense of rights and contributing to the anarchy that reigns in cyberspace. As in another historic episode of a similar magnitude – the 2001 Twin Towers attacks in the US – there is the danger that these exceptional measures will be sealed into subsequent institutional normality. In addition to the traditional split between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, there is a new concern: the split between global solidarity and nationalist isolation. While in 2014, coordination to face the Ebola epidemic was led by the United States, this responsibility is today diluted, with neither the World Health Organization (WHO), nor the G20, nor the European Union, nor China being able to occupy that role to date.
China today synthesizes the most extreme cases of medical vulnerability, mass surveillance, and information manipulation. In late December 2019, the Chinese government censored, on the Weibo and WeChat platforms, the doctors in Wuhan (LiWenliang and Ai Fen) and the media that disseminated alerts about the viral outbreak. Several internet users managed to publish this information by encrypting the published content in order to circumvent the censorship algorithms, even as internal migrations relating to the Chinese New Year celebration and global mobility spread the virus exponentially. It is worth remembering that since December 2019, the United States had been warned of a coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan, an alert that the US administration chose not to take seriously. US influence on the WHO also contributed to delaying the global response. While several computerized monitoring systems had sounded the alarm several days earlier (BlueDot for example), the WHO global alert was declared a month later, on January 30. Since that date, a vast diplomatic and information campaign has been waged by China (and others) to counteract the narratives internationally.
In addition to the traditional split between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, the Covid crisis presents a new concern: the split between global solidarity and nationalist isolation.
With the pandemic already underway, an avalanche of surveillance devices has been triggered in many countries, regardless of their political regimes. In China, it combined surveillance of smartphones, the use of hundreds of millions of facial recognition cameras, and the obligation to report body temperature and health status so that authorities can identify potential contaminants and those they have contacted. Some mobile applications made it possible to signal the proximity of infected patients. Mouton Numérique and Privacy International maintain surveys of the legal and technological devices in place. In this respect, Israel, Vietnam, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, India, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Slovakia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Ecuador were the countries with the most aggressive measures. Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea had the most outstanding medical results, since these devices were implemented with greater transparency, citizen cooperation and complemented by other sanitary measures (systematic testing, face-masks).
In addition to this governmental avalanche, numerous corporations and services, from Facebook, Slack, NSO group, Social Sentinel to Google, WeChat and Zoom, took advantage of the demands to strengthen their market presence, particularly in the sectors of education, health, security and teleworking. In recent weeks, all digital rights organizations have been tracking and publicizing the maneuvers of these services.
As in the case of the Ebola virus in 2014, the new arsenal of technological measures that disengage the artificial intelligence goal from respect for rights is showing serious limits, both in its results and in its modalities. Its intrusive action breaks the trust and levels of cooperation required to resolve a crisis such as this one. The Chinese paradox speaks for itself. Strong internal upheavals are now unsettling the country, indicating that trust in the authorities has been partly broken. We will see in the coming months who will be the most lucid in developing technological solutions based less on a single-sector and monolithic approach and more oriented toward interconnected and complex configurations.
This article was first published in Spanish in the Internet Ciudadana magazine, No, 4, April 2020. It is reposted here with permission. Translation to English by ALAI.
This article is part of our ongoing series on the coronavirus and its impact.