The role of technology in aiding our daily lives has grown rapidly since the imposition of lockdowns in many countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In adapting to the new normal, e-commerce, e-learning and teleconferencing are flourishing. Technology is also utilised by governments to manage the spread of the novel coronavirus, with increasing attention focused on digital surveillance.
Edward Snowden’s 2013 expose of the US government’s PRISM programme, which monitored and obtained information of people in the US en masse without their consent or knowledge and invaded the citizen’s privacy, has become a cautionary tale on government’s ability to conduct disproportionate surveillance.
Recently, various countries have chosen different methods for digital contact tracing to manage the spread of COVID-19 )some are less respectful of privacy than others).
Currently, countries like Ecuador utilise GPS location tracking while Singapore and Finland opt for “proximity tracking” using Bluetooth–a less invasive method.
In Malaysia, as many as 92 drones were active as the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM)’s eyes in the sky during the movement control order (MCO).
In the conditional MCO (CMCO), the non-geolocation Bluetooth-enabled MyTrace app exists alongside MySejahtera. The app was developed in co-operation with the National Security Council (NSC), Ministry of Health
(MoH), Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (Mampu) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to manage any outbreak.
In addition to these is Gerak Malaysia, associated with PDRM and developed by MCMC to deliver a digital ID that verifies motivations for travel. Gerak Malaysia utilises geolocation data to track and control traffic in their version of contact tracing efforts. There are also private-sector initiatives such as a web-based check-in platform CovCT developed by Madison Technologies (an idea similar to Selangor’s SElangkah app).
The options available raise questions on our personal information’s collection methods and storage. To manage a pandemic, it is essential to conduct contact tracing. However, we also need to understand that data collection is an industry in which information can be shared as well as exploited.
As tracking and surveillance technology appears to be an essential part of managing the pandemic, the question then is how to protect all this data? The role of the private sector in developing the ecosystem provides a layer of innovation and also adds complexities to regulation. The parties handling data of citizens would have to comply with regulations by the government. However, regulations require enforcement, which is challenging when data breaches are neither disclosed nor reported.
Another challenge is the rapidly changing digital environment which complicates terminology and can introduce grey areas.
In addition to privacy and security concerns, many question if such surveillance tools are effective enough to combat COVID-19 linked issues. A study in Shenzhen, China showed that contact tracing to rapidly isolate people who could be infected with COVID-19 reduced the length of time people were infectious in the community, compared with cases identified through symptomatic observations. =Upon announcing the CMCO, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin advised that both manual and digital contact tracing methods for citizens be implemented.
Moonyati Yatid is a Senior Analyst, Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability; Farlina Said, a Analyst, Foreign Policy and Security Studies; and Tengku Nur Qistina is a Senior Researcher, Social Policy and National Integration. This article first appeared in MALAY MAIL