Digital help

April 06, 2020

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AS the Covid-19 challenge continues to test the limits of healthcare infrastructure around the world, tech giants like Google have rolled out new features with the aim of helping both citizens and governments. Google’s efforts include a crucial SOS Alert that connects people with the latest news and safety tips from the World Health Organisation. The tech company is also active in removing misinformation on platforms like YouTube and Google Search to limit the harm to unsuspecting users on the lookout for ‘cures’ and ‘remedies’. In these unprecedented circumstances, artificial intelligence tools developed by some Silicon Valley companies are combing through coronavirus research databases to uncover new insights into the global pandemic. The role of technology and these platforms in this exceptional crisis is undeniable. Yet the companies at the helm of this technology have a huge responsibility towards citizens.

Google’s recent release of location reports for 131 countries, including Pakistan, is helping health authorities assess if people are abiding by social distancing orders, with the tech giant saying it has published the reports to avoid confusion about what is being provided to the authorities. Undoubtedly, these companies are the gatekeepers of data belonging to millions of citizens across the world — data which is used to generate profit through targeted advertising. For this reason, they must responsibly fight disinformation and aid governments and researchers wherever they can to help the world tackle the coronavirus outbreak. However, they must be cognisant of the fact that sharing any citizen data with governments means treading a fine legal and ethical line. China, Singapore, South Korea and other countries have asked residents to use technology to track their compliance with quarantines, but privacy activists argue such measures can compromise individual liberties. The anonymised geo-tracking of citizens can go a long way in helping governments enforce distancing, but it may also be open to misuse. As some experts have noted, technology can save lives, but if implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2020