The SARS-CoV-2 virus has put the weak global architecture in check and points to the importance of the social. Human mobility, viral spread and vulnerabilities are three key forces, acting faster than the political and the cultural. The information and electronic communication ecosystems are closely intertwined with this commotion. What role do these play?
First, digital communication networks are playing a much more resilient role than other infrastructures, such as health infrastructure, which is unprepared for such health care pressure and is not rapidly scalable. The cost of entry, openness and flexibility of the Internet have somehow placed it back on the same footing as a common good where everyone can use digital resources, always according to their connectivity levels and the current rule of law. This is illustrated by Internet traffic and network stability, with an overall average increase of 29% (according to Akamai). Another proof of flexibility is the higher demand for cloud services since February in operators such as Amazon or Microsoft. This connectivity has boosted many community initiatives whose creative forms go beyond the methods of the State and private actors1.
Since the start of the pandemic three months ago, digital resources have been widely used to consolidate social and health responses. But the pressure to take action led to a superposition of controlling, liberticidal and even destabilizing responses, taken at the expense of rights and fueling the anarchy that rules in cyberspace. As it was the case in a historic event of similar magnitude, the September 11 attacks of 2001, the fear is that these exceptional measures will become embedded in the subsequent institutional normality. A new worrying divide is added to the traditional one of totalitarian surveillance versus citizen empowerment: that of global solidarity versus nationalist isolation. While in 2014 the coordination efforts against the Ebola epidemic had been led by the United States, this responsibility is now diffused; neither the WHO or the G20, nor the European Union or China are able to take on this role to date.
China currently reflects the most extreme advances in terms of health vulnerability, mass surveillance and information manipulation. By the end of December 2019, the Chinese government censored2 Wuhan doctors (Li Wenliang and Ai Fen3) and the media that released alerts about the viral outbreak on the Weibo and WeChat platforms. Several Internet users managed to publish them by encrypting the published content in order to circumvent the censorship algorithms4, while internal migrations related to the celebration of the Chinese New Year and global mobility spread the virus exponentially5. The influence exerted on the World Health Organization also contributed to delaying the global response. It is worth to remind that the United States were informed of the coronavirus epidemy in December 2019, but that the North American administration prefered not to react6. Although several computerized monitoring systems had sounded the alarm several days earlier, WHO’s global alert was declared a month later, on January 30. Since this date, China (and others) have launched a vast diplomatic and information campaign7 to reverse narratives internationally.
With the pandemic already underway, it brought a spate of surveillance mechanisms in many countries, regardless of their political regimes. In China, smartphone surveillance, hundreds of millions of facial recognition cameras and the obligation to report body temperature and health status were combined so that authorities can identify potentially contaminated individuals and those they may have been in contact with. Some mobile applications let users check their proximity to infected patients8. Mouton Numérique9 or Privacy International10 keep track of legal and technological mechanisms implemented. In this regard, Israel, Vietnam, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, India, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Slovakia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Canada, United States and Ecuador are the countries with the most aggressive measures. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have had the most outstanding health results as these mechanisms were implemented with greater transparency, citizen cooperation and coordination with other health measures (systematic testing, masks).
This governmental avalanche was coupled with the discretionary engagement of several corporations and services, ranging from Facebook, Slack, NSO Group and Social Sentinel to Google, WeChat and Zoom, which leveraged the demands to strengthen their markets, particularly in the sectors of education11, health, security and telework. In recent weeks, all digital rights advocacy organizations have tracked and disclosed the maneuvers of these services.
Similar to the case of the Ebola virus in 201412, the new arsenal of technological measures that decouple their goal of artificial intelligence from the respect of rights is giving rise to serious limits, both in their results and their modalities. Their intrusive action breaks the relationship of trust and cooperation that is required to resolve such a crisis. The Chinese paradox speaks for itself. A strong internal turmoil13 is now shaking the country, indicating that a certain degree of confidence in the authorities has been lost. We will see in the coming months who will be the most lucid to develop technological solutions less based on a unisectoral and monolithic approach and more on coordinated complex configurations.
- The horror films got it wrong: This virus has turned us into caring neighbours, Georges Monbiot, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/31/virus-neighbours-covid-19