The global health crisis has opened the door for a bigger role of technology, assisting efforts in fighting COVID-19 and helping citizens adapt to a new way of life. As opportunities unfold, technology – being a double-edged sword – is also acting as a conduit for those wanting to take advantage of the crisis. Moving forward, cautious steps are vital as technological emergency measures could also expose citizens to vulnerabilities that violate human rights and privacy.
When China first alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, on 31 December 2019, it was already spreading at an alarming rate. Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, and soon the rest of China, struggled in the battle to fight the virus – as the world watched. Four months later, COVID-19 has spread to 210 countries and territories, infected more than 2 million people and caused the deaths of more than 130,000 patients.
Countries globally are putting various measures to combat the health crisis, which the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March. China leveraged on its advanced technology capacity especially the artificial intelligence (AI) sector to assist the efforts to combat COVID-19. For instance, infectious disease models were developed to assess measures, provide suggestions and offer early warning signals, while deep learning models were used to predict potential virus hosts, and machine learning was used to support drug discovery.
China also used its advanced surveillance tools via automated temperature monitoring and tracking devices to analyse 300 people every minute, and identified those who were without facemasks through algorithms and facial recognition technology. A health check application using quick response (QR) code was deployed in more than 200 cities; the system determines whether one is healthy and safe to be around others or not.
Through its system, the Chinese government could track users who have been alerted as needing to be quarantined, and whether the quarantine requirements were violated. China also used robots together with automated dialogue systems to minimise physical interactions between patients and healthcare workers. Similarly in Thailand, “ninja robot” machines facilitate communications between doctors and coronavirus patients through video chat functions to reduce the risk of infection.
Meanwhile, South Korea employed a tracking system that is more social-centric, in which users are informed of nearby infection cases to allow them to take early precaution measures. They have also used drones to spray disinfectants in coronavirus hot spots.
In Taiwan, its digital policing approach leverages on big data analytics – integrating its national health insurance database with immigration and customs databases. This integrated system provides real- time alerts on patients that match specific travel history and clinical symptom criteria to assist case identification. Taiwan also deployed the QR code tracking system to identify those needing home quarantine, as well as to monitor their location during quarantine.
In Malaysia, the government implemented the Movement Control Order (MCO) to combat the spread of COVID-19. Announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on the night of 16 March, and to last for two weeks in the initial phase, the restriction on travels and compelling most to stay at home caught many by surprise.
Notably during this period where a majority of Malaysians are staying home, the growing role of technology in daily lives is observable. This includes the usage of conference calls to carry out otherwise ordinary work- related and social interactions, the use of e-learning to ensure continuity of students’ education, and even the live streaming of performances by artists and home workouts by instructors for online viewers, which are all fast becoming a norm.
While some say that this crisis is forcing citizens to rely on technology much more than usual, others see technology as a means to continue their daily tasks amidst the disruption faced. For instance, while it was first announced that courts would be closed for the duration of the MCO, its subsequent extension has encouraged the Malaysian judiciary to take the bold step of conducting virtual hearings.
A pilot programme to curb the spread of COVID-19 – a mobile app called MySejahtera – has been launched for citizens to carry out health self-assessments; this includes a tracing exercise. The application also helps citizens identify nearby hospitals and clinics for COVID-19 testing and treatment as well as guides them on what to do if they contract the virus.
Surveillance technology is also being adopted to enforce the MCO with drones being deployed to assist the law enforcement frontliners to monitor public compliance. Equipped with heat-sensing technology and speakers, the drones are used during both day and night to monitor public movement in town centres and red zone areas, as well as to convey information to citizens.
Meanwhile, Sarawak has rolled out a digital surveillance system that requires those being monitored to wear a QR-coded wristband. Using these tracking devices, Sarawak aims to monitor and control the spread of COVID-19 at all its Points of Entry (POE). Further, according to Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), an application is being developed to assist with contact tracing especially after the MCO is lifted.
All that said, it is worth remembering that parallel to how technology is being used to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also serving as a conduit for those wanting to take advantage of the crisis.
Cyber-attacks exploiting COVID-19 fears have been observed in various locations, including India, Czech Republic and Italy. A study by Cynet discovered a correlation between the increasing COVID-19 infection cases in Italy and the rise of cyber-attack cases targeting work-from- home employees – where 35 percent of personal emails encountered cyber-attacks. WHO has also raised the alarm that cyber-criminals are using its name in phishing emails to target employees working from home in an attempt to compromise the individual’s accounts and networks.
In Malaysia, just a week into the MCO, the police had opened 393 investigation papers on scammers using social media to trick citizens regarding government aid and sales of face masks with total losses incurred reaching RM3 million so far. Further, cases of disinformation and misinformation, which have always been an issue in Malaysia, have been higher during the pandemic, putting additional strain on efforts to combat the coronavirus. Financial damage, promoting misleading and dangerous guidelines, causing public panic and elevating racial discrimination are some of the impacts of false information observed thus far. As of 10 April, a total of 207 investigation papers related to COVID-19 have been opened, of which 23 cases have been taken to court and the individuals charged.
As Malaysia follows the footsteps of countries like China and Singapore to ramp up the use of tracking devices, we must also bear in mind the ethical and privacy concerns that come with it. While it may be common for businesses to track the online behaviour of consumers, the use of tracking devices by states demonstrates an interest to perceive one’s offline behaviour as well. Among others, this could include body temperature, blood- pressure levels, current and past locations, and who we have crossed paths with. If implemented without the necessary safeguards, this pandemic could mark the start of an Orwellian surveillance system that invades the privacy and human rights of citizens and, if left unchecked, could be abused by irresponsible parties.
Moving forward, to further leverage on technology to combat COVID-19, collaborations and coordination between various ministries and government agencies are needed more than ever. This means that any relevant ministries need to cooperate with the Ministry of Health (MoH), while the latter leverages on its respective in- house experts to conduct internal and external collaborations.
So far, cooperation among the Ministries of Science, Technology and Innovation, Higher Education, International Trade and Industry, and Communications and Multimedia with the MoH is giving birth to initiatives such as an application to map COVID-19 transmission areas, speeding up the diagnostic test kit evaluation process, increasing daily testing of the coronavirus, as well as the development of screening booths to protect frontliners.
Domestic collaborations and cooperation should also involve the technology-related private sector, academia, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the public. Within the first week of the MCO, involvement of the public included the Malaysian 3D printing and design communities collaborating to produce face shields for frontliners. Several weeks later, Huawei Malaysia donated four technology solutions that allow healthcare experts to carry out remote online consultations with patients and increase the effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment.
These efforts are very much welcomed. In fact, greater involvement by the private sector is needed as they have the resources and are more agile to mobilise implementation compared to the government, which is encumbered by bureaucracy. This makes the case for the private sector to step up and play a more active role. As to how COVID-19 is indiscriminate in who it affects, responsibility in the fight against the novel virus requires a whole-of-society participation rather than just government action.
Collaboration and cooperation among countries are also important as COVID-19 is a global fight – a struggle between humans and an invisible enemy. Even though there are tensions as countries struggle to secure medical supplies, food and general healthcare to protect their citizens, there are many ways that we can help each other in this difficult time. Singapore, for instance, has allowed the world to access the code of their contact tracing app for free, allowing the international community to adapt it to their own needs. These international collaborations will increase the efficiency of countries combating the deadly virus.
Times of crisis such as now also encourage innovative thinking. In the past, crises stemming from World Wars resulted in various important inventions, such as the first digital computer, rocket technology and radar systems. Not too dissimilar, during this pandemic, there is an urgent call for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking; Malaysia should seize the opportunity to create a wealth of new prototypes.
Next, with physical movements now limited, the few means of connecting with the “outside world” is through the Internet. This will highlight the vast difference between offline and online businesses in terms of customer reach and, ultimately, business survival. That said, this pandemic may also serve as a catalyst for the massive crossover from an offline to online business and a wake-up call for businesses to adopt new technology. Over 98.5 percent of business establishments in Malaysia are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and, in the past, their digital adoption and desire to implement technological solutions were low. Moving forward, Malaysian businesses should ensure an online presence at the earliest viable opportunity while adopting relevant emerging technologies under the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) umbrella to ensure long-term sustainability.
To address the increasing cyber- attacks and misinformation during this time of crisis, while the government continues to be diligent in handling the issues, the public must play its role too. Concerning cyber-attacks, the public must be aware of the trends of phishing emails and online scams as well as how to protect themselves and their organisations from having important information stolen or incurring losses. Similarly, to tackle the issue of increasing misinformation – besides the government’s role in heightening the accountability of social media platforms, creating robust fact- checking mechanisms and putting appropriate legislation in place – the public’s digital literacy must be enhanced. The public needs to know how to check facts and detect misinformation, as well as understand the impacts of the spread of false information.
Lastly, the implementation of new technology during times of crisis would also mean that there are increasing vulnerabilities that need to be considered.
Surveillance technologies, such as the use of contact tracing, exposes citizens to an increased risk of privacy violations. Iran and China have deployed state- level intelligence gathering tools to track its population in their efforts to combat the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Israel has utilised surveillance technology – typically reserved for combating terrorists – to track COVID-19 patients. The extent to which intelligence gathering tools are being used in these states is an indication that a more intrusive level of citizen tracking could also be implemented elsewhere.
As Malaysia enforces surveillance technologies during the MCO period – and develops other types – the design and implementation of these systems should be conscious of the rights of citizens. Although public health is a priority, data protection and transparency of how these technologies will be adopted are some issues that need to be communicated to the public adequately.
When the fight against COVID- 19 ends, one might wonder how much change we need to adapt, endure and embrace. Professor Yuval Noah Harari argues in his article The World After Coronavirus that “…the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive – but we will inhabit a different world.”
Thus, when this global public health crisis ends, would we be immersing in the use of technology as much as we do now during isolation? Will we continue to minimise human contact? Will we allow ourselves to be monitored through high- tech surveillance systems? Will Virtual Reality (VR) potentially substitute mass gatherings?
Moving forward past this pandemic, we need to anticipate the change in the technology landscape and think hard on what policies ought to be put in place. In a nutshell, while it is a good opportunity to increase digital adoption and ramp up the 4IR technological efforts, mitigating security threats from new technologies should also come hand-in-hand.
With each passing day in our battle against the coronavirus, we are witnessing the economy suffer and social issues increase. Technology adoption is no longer optional – it is now the needed solution to cushion the devastating impact of the pandemic.
In this, Malaysia has no room for technophobia. We simply cannot afford it. But moving forward, cautious steps are vital as technological emergency measures could also expose citizens to vulnerabilities that violate human rights and privacy.