Coronavirus: The world's first digital pandemic
This op-ed was originally published in De Volkskrant on 29 March 2020.
With doctors in the Netherlands bracing for the expected peak in the numbers of coronavirus patients, it is early – inappropriately early, I thought – to be talking already about the long-term consequences of the world's first digital pandemic. But things are changing fast and now does seem the right time to have the debate about sovereignty and privacy in the period that will follow this digital pandemic.
Why is it a digital pandemic? As Makoto Yokozawa of Kyoto University in Japan already argued in February, the enormous spread of the coronavirus was made possible by the Chinese government’s restrictions on the digital dissemination of information. News, including warnings, about early cases of the then unknown infection were banned on social media.
"COVID-19 is a digital pandemic in terms of its origin. And it is also one in its effect."
COVID-19 is therefore a digital pandemic in terms of its origin. And it is also one in its effect. Governments around the world are resorting to digital instruments to combat the virus. Artificial intelligence and big data analysis play a valuable role herein. But we must be on guard for potentially far-reaching consequences for individuals’ privacy, as the use of digital instruments such as mass surveillance could become normalised.
The world's first digital pandemic carries long-term dangers that could emerge when hospitals are running normally again but the world around them has changed. It raises major questions about the sustainability of digital sovereignty in a globalised world. And it reinforces the need for guarantees that citizens, not governments, will be central in the data-driven society that is now taking shape.
All the more reason, then, to start the debate now. After all, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine is running at full speed on digital media channels to show China's good side. The story is that China, after taking drastic measures at home to control the situation, is now lending a hand to the West – including the Netherlands. That story is also meant to divert attention from the debate on the restriction of digital freedom of speech, which impeded effective action against the virus at an early stage.
Doctors like An Fen and Li Wenliang were reprimanded by their hospital managers or the police when they tried to warn colleagues through social media posts. Li later died of the virus. It was finally through Twitter – and illegal private networks, VPNs – that the news reached the outside world. But vital weeks had been lost due to the blocking of digital channels. During that time the virus spread from Wuhan like an oil slick around the world and the scope for data-driven research was very limited. The Chinese government’s restrictions on digital freedom of speech thus caused great suffering in China itself and are now doing enormous damage to other countries.
"The Chinese government’s restrictions on digital freedom of speech caused great suffering in China itself and are now doing enormous damage to other countries."
In the meantime more and more governments are using digital instruments to fight the virus. By Dutch standards these are sometimes at or beyond the margins of what is ethically acceptable or even breach fundamental rights. The Chinese government, like Israel and Iran, is an extreme case: it instructed three Chinese telecom companies to develop an app that is now reportedly being used to track 1.6 billion mobile phones and compel users to report on their health. Combined with the millions of surveillance cameras and thermal scanners across the country, this is helping the Chinese government to gather huge volumes of personal data that could also be used to perfect the existing social surveillance system.
Far-reaching digital instruments such as data analysis and tracking systems are also being used elsewhere. And successfully, judging by the relatively low coronavirus numbers. In Singapore, an app is available that can trace people within two metres of infected patients. The Taiwanese government can issue warnings when quarantined people leave their home. The difference compared to China is that the approach relies more on targeted monitoring, honest reporting and willing cooperation between a transparent government and a well-informed population – a system centred on the citizen and not the government. Just as in China, however, many citizens are willing to accept the resulting privacy violations.
Such willingness is less evident in Europe, where privacy is a paramount concern for both citizens and governments. But Belgium and Austria are now using telecom companies’ data to monitor their citizens’ traffic, the key difference being that the data is anonymised.
"It is clear that governments everywhere are demanding access to valuable personal data."
It is clear that governments everywhere are demanding access to valuable personal data. What are the differences? And what are the long-term consequences? Will they continue to use these instruments once the crisis is over? There is a fundamental difference between the analysis of anonymous and aggregated data, social monitoring and coercive social control. And digital openness, transparency and democratic processes are crucial, so that citizens themselves can make informed choices.
COVID-19 is calling digital sovereignty and digital human rights into question and requires transparent processes and multilateral responses. In the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and perhaps even a ‘D20’ or Data20. Because in a world of high-speed global connections every government has a high degree of international responsibility if domestic action also has impacts beyond its borders.