Covid-19. | Photo Credit: Getty images

COVID-19’s Digital Transformation Of The World

As COVID-19 disrupts the operations of governments and businesses, technology can be utilised to bridge these gaps. This is an opportunity for governments to strengthen and empower their digital infrastructure. But we must ensure that safeguards are in place to protect our data and privacy rights.

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2020 has been a year that left a permanent impression on everyone and will continue to do so for years to come. Who would have predicted that countries could lockdown over a virus? Despite being cooped up at home, access to essential services such as banking and government are still required. Thankfully, this can be achieved with digitalisation.

What Is Digitalisation?

Digitalisation here is defined as leveraging digital tools such as apps or artificial intelligence to increase productivity. An example would be Singapore’s TraceTogether application launched on March 20, 2020. It enables authorities to keep track of people who have been exposed to COVID-19 through the exchange of Bluetooth signals with other members of the public who have the app or token. While Singapore might have pioneered this technology, there are other underlying capabilities that this city-state has done.

Despite the lockdown in 2020, essential services had to continue running, and technology is playing no small part in it. 

When the government implemented stricter social distancing measures last March, there was a real incentive to stay home and access online services to reduce COVID-19 transmissions. Hence, Singapore’s strong push for digitalisation over the years has become an asset. This includes the creation of SingPass and CorpPass by the Government Technology Agency in 2003 and 2016 respectively. 

SingPass allows Singaporeans to access government services in a secure and convenient method whilst CorpPass is intended for businesses. These apps have grown over the years to include services such as applying for a bank account from home and have reduced the need for users to drop by government offices.

Unfortunately, not all countries have the same capacity as Singapore. What happens to countries with low digitalisation levels? One can only imagine. 

Singapore rolled out a Temporary Relief Fund on April 1 last year for citizens who had been financially affected by COVID-19. Those who wished to apply would have to make their way to a Community Centre (CC). However, it led to overcrowding at CCs, increasing the possibility of a COVID-19 cluster arising. Hence, the government decided to launch an online form to reduce the size of the congregation. 

Applicants queuing to apply for the Temporary Relief Fund at Nanyang Community Club in Jurong West. | Photo Credit: Anam Musta’ein from TODAY

Governments all over the world have also been pursuing similar initiatives to roll out some form of financial package for their citizens. A notable one would be Japan’s generous US$990 billion (S$1.34 trillion) package in April 2020, and a second one worth US$296 billion (S$400 billion) in late May 2020. Without digitalisation, citizens would not only be endangering themselves but government officials at such centres.

Data As A Manipulation Tool

However, digitalisation isn’t always a bed of roses as there are still certain issues countries grapple with, such as privacy. Privacy International (PI), an organisation that defends the right to privacy, defines privacy laws as the laws designed to protect one’s personal data. Data protection is necessary to limit corporations from studying the behaviours of individuals who might not be aware of how their internet experience could be manipulated. This could be done by providing more control and awareness to users on how their information is gathered and used by corporations. 

An example of data exploitation is the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016. Based on a Guardian report on March 23, 2018, consumers were segmented into different categories based on whether they were Trump supporters or potential swing votes. Consumers were then shown different advertisements based on which segment of the population they belonged to. Trump supporters received triumphant visuals of him, in addition to information regarding polling stations while swing voters were often shown negative graphics about Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

The more we expose ourselves to these tech companies, the more we could unknowingly fall victim to such campaigns. Hence, steps are needed to limit access to our digital footprint, including limiting location details when not necessary. This will reduce the likelihood of being unwanted targets of governments and business campaigns. 

Recently, there has also been a growing concern of privacy issues that have risen from applications attempting to fight against COVID-19. India’s response to COVID-19 through their tracking application called “Aarogya Setu” has been a mess. The application does not state clearly who can access the data and under what circumstances. The list contains developers mainly from the private sector, which makes accountability an issue. However, despite India’s response raising multiple red flags, citizens who fail to download the application would still be met with social discrimination as they might risk losing their jobs, be fined or even be jailed. 

Problems are arising from a lax approach to data security. Since hackers understand the value of an individual’s data, they will aim to acquire it in order to sell the information on the dark web for a high price. Thus, the onus lies upon governments and private companies that hold on to people’s data. 

Except, they have been negligent in ensuring this. 

On March 21, 2019, Facebook admitted that it has not properly secured the passwords of as many as 600 million users since 2012. So what are the consequences of this? 

People with ill intent can purchase “identities” on the black market. Using credentials such as email addresses, credit card information and home addresses, they are able to pose as real people to take on financial loans and so on.

Besides this, we have another pressing issue with data security. 

As previously mentioned, the 2016 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal exposed the perils of using social media. Facebook has enabled third parties to utilise their users’ data to develop sophisticated psychological profiling and personalisation algorithms to influence their beliefs and votes. Once again, we have seen how Facebook has been implicit in influencing people’s voting behaviours. 

All in all, the internet is not a benign environment as we have imagined. 

Protecting Our Data

To safeguard ourselves, I propose a three-pronged approach by the government, corporations and individuals. Governments can employ stronger legislation ensuring protection for people against intrusive practices. If companies have taken our data without permission, they must be dealt with accordingly. A good example of this is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation which aims to grant more ownership towards an individual’s data – treating it similar to human rights. 

Infographic explaining EU’s GDPR. | Photo Credit: RSI Security

To ensure corporations comply, PI recommends companies be transparent in data collection from individuals. We need to understand how corporations like Facebook and Google profile us, and if a breach were to occur, we would be aware of what information has been compromised. 

However, individuals must also take a more active role in the protection of their data. Besides regularly changing our passwords, we could demand that cookies, terms and conditions, and many other digital tools be more transparent and accessible. This ensures that consumers will be aware of where their data flows to, be it just the website or to data brokers, which are companies that collect information on individuals, create a profile and target ads to them. 

All in all, data protection is an important aspect that we must safeguard. We shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon of creating apps against COVID-19 just because other countries are. Looking forward, there would probably be technologies in the near future that may aid in our fight against COVID-19. This three-pronged approach will therefore set a healthy and strong precedent for a country’s stance on digitalisation.

The Next Frontier: How 5G Can Play A Role Against COVID-19

The implementation of 5G networks will push this to the next level. 5G promises to send data over 1,000 megabits per second (Mbps) compared to the measly 35 Mbps of 4G. This allows more information to travel within a shorter time, opening up new horizons where mobile appliances are able to do more complex tasks with more data. 

An example of the utilisation of 5G networks is a partnership between three Japanese companies; KDDI, Obayashi, and NEC Corporation to pilot test a remote construction system that allows an excavator to be manned remotely by someone from another city. The operator is in complete control of the heavy machinery without being physically present. Perhaps running factory machines from home isn’t too inconceivable after all. 

Construction worker operating a machine remotely. | Photo Credit: Nippon Electric Company (NEC)

We have seen how our world seemed to have “stopped” during the global lockdowns last year when construction projects had to be halted and factories could not operate. Hence, digitalisation will help reduce the negative economic impact of COVID-19 by ensuring factories continue production. 

The Digital Divide

However, though electronic devices and internet connections may have become common among large sections of the populace, not everyone benefits equally. 

The problem here is access: the digital divide. This refers to the growing gap of the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural and elderly portions who do not have access to mobile phones, computers or the internet. 

To look at how this links to COVID-19, Capgemini Research Institute published a report highlighting some issues. When cities are in lockdown, being offline can lead to feelings of isolation, inadequacy, or loneliness. Furthermore, those without digital appliances would be unable to receive public services when government offices are closed, or pushed online. Underprivileged citizens will not only find it a hassle to apply for government schemes but might not even know of their existence. 

While politicians can fight for initiatives that aid the underprivileged, efforts could seem pointless without proper channels to ensure they receive them. To combat this, there needs to be a strong communication channel between outreach efforts by social government offices or social services and the information and communications ministries.

It is imperative that governments do not assume that their entire population has access to digital tools and services. In January last year, New York banned stores which only accepted electronic-only payment options because it left poor people who could only pay with cash unable to buy anything at such stores. These discriminatory actions that assume the entire population has access to digital tools and services marginalise the poor even more. Besides the poor, the elderly might also be marginalised.

Thankfully, Singapore’s government has given the green light for CCs, social service agencies and volunteer groups to run during lockdown measures. Organisations like the Lions Befrienders, whose aim is to provide care and friendship for seniors remain open to render advice and facilitate help.

Nurturing An Infocomm Industry 

Moving forward, one may ask a valid question: If digitalisation is so easy, why don’t all governments implement it? 

Infocomm is a young industry and governments would need to take the lead. Schools should teach some basic coding skills whilst mid-career workers that wish to start afresh should be able to take subsidised classes. Though the process of digitalisation is not simple and the processes can take years, it is never too late to start. One such country trying to bridge the gap is Vietnam.

In 2018, the United Nations E-Government Development Index charted the digitalisation efforts of countries in terms of online services, telecommunications infrastructure and human capital. Singapore clinched the 8th spot whilst Vietnam took the 88th spot. Since then, Vietnam has pulled out all the stops to climb its rankings. Vietnam has since begun testing 5G speeds. Moreover, they have developed a fund for digital technology companies to promote investment in tech start-ups. Vietnam has learnt the vast opportunities of digitalisation and should they continue on this trajectory, we might soon see a strong and healthy industry.

Even after we have successfully tackled the pandemic, these digitalisation efforts will not go to waste. ‘Soft’ infrastructures are here to stay as innovative solutions would constantly be created by the brightest minds. For developing countries, this could be a ticket for their low-skilled workforce to climb up. The value for digital solutions will only increase in the coming years, which could create an opportunity if governments of developing countries seize it.  

The pandemic has indeed shown us the gaps in our economy and society. Hence, we must recalibrate and reform wherever necessary. Besides demanding more online services, we should also take this opportunity to delve into the intriguing world of programming. The only constant is change. With the various challenges that come with our ever-changing world, we must adapt as our ancestors have.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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