Digital splits and risks in the current pandemic
The SARS-CoV-2 virus challenges the weak global architecture and highlights the importance of the social. Human mobility, viral spread and vulnerabilities are three key forces, operating faster than the political and cultural spheres. Electronic information and communication ecosystems are intimately intertwined with this upheaval. What role are they playing?
First, digital communication networks are fulfilling a much more resilient role than other infrastructures, including those of the medical system, which are not prepared for such health pressures and are not rapidly scalable. To a certain 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, always depending on their state of connectivity and the prevailing rule of law. Internet traffic and network stability illustrate this, with a global average increase of 29% (according to Akamai). Another proof of flexibility: the increased demand for cloud services since February from operators such as Amazon or Microsoft (growth is similar with Chinese operators). This connectivity has been boosting many community initiatives whose creative forms surpass the modalities of State and private actors.
Three months after the start of the pandemic, digital resources have been widely used to consolidate social and medical responses. But the pressure to take action 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 such magnitude – the 2001 Twin Towers attacks, for example – the danger is 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 WHO nor the G20, nor the European Union nor China being able to occupy that role to date.
China today synthesizes the most extreme advances in terms 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 the alerts about the viral outbreak. Several Internet users managed to publish the alerts by encrypting the published content in order to circumvent the censorship algorithms, while 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. The influence exerted on the World Health Organization 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.
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, 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 or Privacy International maintain a survey 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, 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.
Similar to the case of the Ebola virus in 2014, the new arsenal of technological measures that disengage its 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 to interconnected and complex configurations.
François Soulard is a social communicator and a French-Argentinean migrant. He lives in La Plata (Argentina) since 2006. He participates in various social movements and citizens' assemblies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. He is an activist for the Free Media Forum and the Forum for Global Governance (www.world-governance.org)
Article first published in Spanish in the Internet Ciudadana magazine, No, 4, April 2020. https://al.internetsocialforum.net/2020/04/16/internet-ciudadana-n-4-abril-2020/
 The horror films were mistaken: this virus has turned us into caring neighbours, George Monbiot, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/31/virus-neighbours-covid-19
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