Cover photo: Left: Miriam Dalli, Right: A passenger wears an electronic wrist band handed upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport (Photo: Reuters)
Maltese MEP Miriam Dalli has sounded a warning against governments rushing to deploy cyber surveillance measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Appearing as a guest on Lovin Malta’s new discussion show #CovidCalls, Dalli voiced scepticism about surveillance measures to track COVID-19 patients and enforce quarantine that have been implemented in China and Israel.
“Some governments will say that it’s necessary for a temporary period of time and people will agree, but what usually happens is that these temporary measures outlive the crisis,” she said.
“We’ve seen this in a number of countries and this is the balance that must be reached. When governments act like Big Brother, initially using bracelets to check people’s temperature but then also using to check their location and who they’re meeting with… if these measures outlive this crisis, it will be a serious issue.”
She said that AI is an extremely useful tool but that a balance must be found between people’s rights and how and why their data is collected and assessed.
Dalli was responding to a call by tech entrepreneur Gege Gatt for governments to make use of artificial intelligence to help combat the virus.
“In AI circles we’re think of technology is an enabling factor, an opportunity for humanity to use science to its benefit, such as using bracelets to track biometric signals to fight an epidemic,” Gatt said.
“Government needs to prioritise digital rights. You cannot introduce any technology measure unless the country has properly prioritised basic digital concepts such as the right of informational self determination, which allow citizens to determine how and when their data is used.
“This means that public policy on the matter needs to be informed by basic trust-building principles around data processing known as ‘FAT’ whereby all processing must be fair, accurate and transparent. Thus when Governments allow the use of technology to fight a pandemic, this must pass a litmus test which would ensure that information is correctly managed and with full respect to basic human rights.”
While voicing scepticism about surveillance tactics, Dalli urged governments worldwide to use this period of crisis as a window of opportunity to invest in green economies.
“We won’t go back to normality but to something different that will become the new normal,” she said. “I hope we see this as a window of opportunity to invest in economies that help our environment and our planet.”
“If we really want to try to minimise the risk of returning to this situation, we must rethink what we’ve done so far and invest in economies that can help heal our planet.”
As a case in point, she said she hopes the new and sudden trend towards teleworking outlives the crisis, arguing that it helps ease the traffic burden and helps people reach a work-life balance.
“I think these new normalities can last for longer if we have the vision to invest in them so as to help our planet,” she said. “We should spend money on cleaner energy instead of fossil fuels and we should rethink the way transport works. We shouldn’t go back to how we were doing things and to our traditional economic and business models but we should think of innovative ways to deal with this new normality.”