Techno-solutionist approaches to Covid-19 can easily slide into opacity in the absence of accountability mechanisms.

Alexandra Argüelles


As the pandemic gets worse, governments in Latin America are increasingly betting on technology-based solutions. But, is techno-optimism alone enough to address the challenges we face?

Technology solutions, implemented without clear controls, can be harnessed for rampant data collection, invasive identification, or even dissemination of information for purposes that are far removed from respect for human rights.

And detached from a human rights perspective, technological solutions can become prone to different types of abuse, sustained by lack of clarity regarding the regulations, objectives, powers, and restrictions that should frame their implementation.

Countries across the world are taking measures to curb the impacts of the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus (COVID-19), commonly known as the coronavirus. In Latin America, we face an unpredictable scenario, where efforts to flatten the curve have exacerbated the problems that lay hidden.

In the face of uncertainties thrown up by the pandemic, some of these efforts have latched on to technology as the fundamental axis to guide government policies and/or measure the efficiency of policies already implemented. Such techno-solutionist approaches, however, can easily slide into opacity in the absence of accountability mechanisms, and open up the possibility of undermining human rights.

The use of technology detached from a human rights perspective enables different types of abuse, sustained by the lack of clarity regarding the regulations, objectives, powers, and restrictions that should frame the implementation of technical tools.

What is Happening in Latin America?

In Argentina, the Covid-19 Ministerio de Salud app was developed to allow self-assessment of symptoms. Although this particular app does not offer more information or alerts in real time, other unofficial applications and analysis platforms have been disseminated in the country that aim to predict the behavior of the pandemic through artificial intelligence.

In Bolivia, the Ministry of Education introduced the Coronavirus Bolivia app that provides information on prevention and care, symptoms, frequently asked questions and emergency numbers, while also publishing updated official data and communications. In addition, the site boliviasegura.gob.bo was set up to share additional information and guide the public towards boliviaverifica.bo an effort that “is dedicated to verifying false news and public discourse to fight disinformation”.

Brazil launched the Coronavírus-SUS app which allows self-evaluation and offers information on prevention, available health units, and alerts issued by the Ministry of Health. Besides, the site autoavaliacaocoronavirus.einstein.br has been made available to the public, in collaboration with Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, to provide self-assessment online.

The use of technology detached from a human rights perspective enables different types of abuse, sustained by the lack of clarity regarding the regulations, objectives, powers, and restrictions that should frame the implementation of technical tools.

In Chile, the CoronApp was launched – after most countries in the region – through the Gobierno Digital initiative of the Chilean government. Available for iOS and Android devices, this app has proven to be much more problematic than expected, as we have pointed out elsewhere. There is little transparency on how this app gaurds sensitive user data or the steps it takes (if any) to not endanger the people this data is being collected from. It, thus, puts the right to privacy at risk in order to receive little valuable information on the spread of the pandemic in the country.

In Colombia, the CoronApp-Colombia was introduced by the Ministry of Health and the National Institute of Health to monitor the health status of people, including residents and foreigners, in Colombia. It also provides information on government measures, prevention recommendations, location of health centers, and care channels. In addition, a website with updates on the spread of the virus in the country has been made available on this website coronaviruscolombia.gov.co/Covid19/index.html

In Ecuador, the SaludEc app seeks to be a telemedicine channel that complements the strategies of the Ministry of Public Health. Besides offering self-assessment of symptoms and official updates, this app allows users to schedule medical appointments for health concerns unrelated to the coronavirus. The coronavirusecuador.com/ site, in addition to what the app offers, has a section dedicated to flagging off and clarifying false news reports circulating about the medical emergency.

In Guatemala, the app Alerta Guate was developed and introduced, in the words of President Alejandro Giammattei, “in collaboration with Israel and Google”. This app is based on the In-telligent mobile emergency communication platform and offers specific alerts according to the location of people (which are also reproduced in an audio format). It also provides instructions, general information and communication via support personnel through an SOS button.

In Honduras, where the government has not opted for digital platforms to provide official information, Alerta Honduras was created as a civil society effort to keep the general public informed. Prior to the launch of this app, the absence of a centralized portal coupled with people’s need for information had led to a boom of malicious applications, leading to a surge in ransomware (software that allows data hijacking) in March.

In Mexico, the COVID19-MX application was introduced in early April and offers direct access to care channels, self-diagnosis, locations of nearby health centers, information, news, and prevention tips. This is in addition to the official website coronavirus.gob.mx, the implementation of a self-diagnosis chatbot and the recently announced collaboration between telephone companies and government authorities to monitor the movement of those residing in Mexico City.

In Uruguay, the Coronavirus UY app allows self-diagnosis and offers telemedicine solutions to those who suspect they have contracted the virus. As stipulated by the Secretary of the Presidency, the app is an additional resource, over and above the communication channels already implemented by the government, such as the Coronavirus National Plan website, a chatbot, and alternative communication channels through WhatsApp and Messenger.

Which Apps Are we Concerned About?

Although these measures seem innocuous, various organizations and institutions in the region have pointed out a series of concerns with the apps and other technological tools deployed by the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico, in particular.

In different prefectures of Brazil, technologies that use invasive geo-location services have been implemented to identify those who breach the established quarantine. In Ecuador, geo-referencing of people in the sanitary fence has been implemented through satellite tracking. In Mexico City, geo-referencing of mobile telephone networks was implemented in order to to monitor the “movement and contact between people, with the aim of identifying if they comply with the self-isolation mandate."

No doubt, an emergency of this proportion requires extraordinary measures, but it is worrying that beyond the introduction of certain technological tools, there is no clarity regarding the use, limitations, and safeguard measures in the treatment of personal and sensitive data that will be massively captured through their implementation. In this very vagueness lies the possibility that these measures will not just become normalized over time, but may also be abused to strengthen mechanisms of social surveillance and control, to the detriment of human rights.

These measures could not just become normalized over time, but may also be abused to strengthen mechanisms of social surveillance and control, to the detriment of human rights.

Exceptional Measures and Daily Abuse

As we have previously pointed out, technology provides valuable opportunities for social development. But if technology is implemented without clear controls, its power can be harnessed for rampant data collection, invasive identification, or even dissemination of information for purposes that are far removed from respect for human rights and closer to forms of social control.

To be sure, discussions on the abuse of technology by State actors in the region are not new. This is why different organizations in Latin America and across the world have repeatedly pointed out the need to critically analyze these implementations in order to avoid curtailing rights and freedoms.

It is also important to note that the digital divide in Latin America — where 45 percent of the population in the region don't have access to services derived from digital connectivity—must be addressed in any discussion on the deployment of digital strategies for social aid. In a region marked by social, economic, and digital inequalities, centralizing communication, education, and assistance efforts through technologies and services that depend on access to the internet will mean that essential services and support stay beyond the reach of the most marginalized communities.

From Derechos Digitales, in coalition with Al Sur and together with our allies in different countries of the region, we will continue to observe the development and implementation of technologies that - in the context of the pandemic - are deployed in Latin America.

 

This article was first published in Spanish on the Derechos Digitales website. Translation by author.

 


This article is part of our series on the coronavirus and its impact.