In his 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates said that epidemics have replaced nuclear warfare as the number one threat that can wipe out tens of millions of lives globally. His words could not have been more prescient. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest crisis that the world is facing since the Cold War. In the fight against the disease, information technology (IT) has unexpectedly created two major problems.
Firstly, while the virus kills, the panic it generates is arguably deadlier. The information propagation mechanism in the mobile Internet era poses serious challenges to initial epidemic prevention efforts and government communication. Secondly, the use of advanced surveillance methods with the help of IT has created worries about greater intrusions of privacy by governments.
Spread of information and disinformation
Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can broadcast news online. If a member of the public sees medical personnel in protective gear inspecting a disease hotspot and decides to take a video and share it on their phone, the footage captured would spread like wildfire. In fact, it can spread faster than a virus.
If government-public communication is lacking, such panic-inducing information can be distorted and even go viral, triggering disastrous economic and financial consequences. Reactions can range from the stockpiling of provisions, residents leaving in droves before a lockdown, and the jettisoning of assets in the financial markets which can directly or indirectly cause economic losses and deaths. The circuit breakers in the US stock markets were triggered four times when the alarming threat of the pandemic was felt across Europe and America. The societal fallout from fear is even greater than the 2008 financial crisis.
In the current pandemic, there have been examples of short-sellers looking to take advantage, by teaming up with the media to seriously disrupt the normal operations of companies through manipulating public sentiments.
Faced with this new information propagation mechanism, the authorities have few alternatives other than to soothe public sentiments. If the government provides a pessimistic prognosis, this might lead to scaremongering reports surfacing on social media platforms in an era where "citizen media" interprets information to vie for viewership. This is because citizen-media operators generate advertising revenue by producing popular content. Even if only 1% were unethical, there would be enough troublemakers who would not miss out on any chance to stir up public fear or public opinion. They may combine various information and misinterpret official remarks to conclude that society is about to collapse. Those who are gullible are likely to believe such interpretations, resulting in widespread panic.
More importantly, short selling has been built into financial systems worldwide which means it is possible for one to profit handsomely from a financial crisis. In the current pandemic, there have been examples of short-sellers looking to take advantage, by teaming up with the media to seriously disrupt the normal operations of companies through manipulating public sentiments. No government can disregard this danger.
At the same time, the government has to lead scientific investigations, as well as make preparations for the prevention and treatment of disease. These decisions and actions are now subjected to the ubiquitous scrutiny of phone cameras, which could mean slower and more cautious governmental decisions and actions.
For example, if medical personnel start collecting samples from a lockdown area, millions of people would learn about it on social media in a matter of hours or even less. The involvement of a large number of citizen-media operators challenges the government’s goal to safeguard its citizens. Such a scenario was depicted in The Hot Zone, a popular American TV mini-series. In the show, staff from the virus research centre had to slip into the affected area at night to carry out investigations in order to avoid causing panic. While the director controls a show’s plot, reality goes beyond human control.
For most countries, the coronavirus is imported through international airports, so public scrutiny is unavoidable. Such omnipresent monitoring makes it harder for governments to combat the pandemic.
Contract-tracing methods viewed as increasingly intrusive
Secondly, the development of IT has provided governments with more advanced tools to fight the pandemic by efficiently tracking the movements of individuals. The aim is to identify the places that the infected visited so as to quarantine high-risk contacts. At the same time, however, this poses moral issues of the intrusions of freedom and privacy of an individual.
Today, the public intellectuals urging governments to protect privacy at any cost are using the lives of the weak and those who are most at risk, such as the old, the sick and the very young to uphold their ideals.
Every handphone plugged into a network has an International Mobile Equipment Identity or IMEI number. Using both the IMEI number and the subscriber’s mobile number, mobile telephone operators are able to ascertain the person holding on to the device. Concurrently, the base stations communicating with the handphone can be used to provide the user’s physical location.
In other words, if a government has the legal right to acquire data from telecommunications companies, it would be able to rapidly track any mobile phone carrier in a region. This would help it to accurately identify high-risk contacts and suspect cases. Credit card and electronic payment data can also be used to complement such efforts.
However, this greatly amplifies the government’s ability to obtain private information. While Asian countries and a couple of Western countries such as Germany might have adopted this approach to varying degrees, the hands of most governments in the West are tied as such invasion of citizens’ privacy is a major taboo.
It is worth asking if it is reasonable for so many lives to be lost to the coronavirus for the sake of safeguarding privacy. Some hard-line public intellectuals continue to maintain that individual freedom is more precious than life. They opine that since many courageous men lost their lives to bring freedom to Western societies, it is certainly worth defending with life. Conversely, there is another group of intellectuals who vehemently object to this viewpoint in the name of freedom. Historically, those who bravely fought for freedom sacrificed their lives for the well-being of society. Today, the public intellectuals urging governments to protect privacy at any cost are using the lives of the weak and those who are most at risk, such as the old, the sick and the very young to uphold their ideals. One wonders if this indeed pays tribute to or desecrates the ideals of those courageous pioneers.
The information propagation mechanism brought about by technological development has impeded efforts to fight the pandemic. At the same time, IT methods that can aid the battle against the pandemic have given rise to moral issues about privacy.
It is not the intention of this article to discuss whether the government of each country acted appropriately during the onset of the epidemic. Rather, the scope of discussion is the difficulties and moral issues that information age technology has created in the fight against the pandemic. By facing up to the problems of modern society and casting aside ideological biases, it is possible for us to distil valuable lessons from this humanitarian disaster.