The year 2020 was to usher in the decade of ‘digital revolution’ for Pakistan. In December 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan unveiled the government’s ‘Digital Pakistan’ initiative which was designed to expand technology so as to serve public welfare. Two months into the new decade, however, public welfare around the world centered around a one-point agenda.
Pakistan confirmed its first case of covid-19 on February 26. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a pandemic. By April end, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases crossed 3 million around the world, with over 200,000 deaths.
Pakistan crossed 17,000 covid-19 cases, with 404 deaths, at the time of writing, amidst widespread reports of insufficient testing in the country. Therefore, Pakistan’s digitization has had to be remolded towards the global battle against covid-19.
The government of Pakistan launched a coronavirus helpline on WhatsApp to answer frequently asked questions and address the proliferation of fake news surrounding the pandemic. Among other government apps designed to curtail coronavirus was ‘Covid19 Care for Media’, developed by Marcom to facilitate journalists working during the pandemic to bring forth critical stories.
After initially downplaying the gravity of covid-19, Prime Minister Khan gradually came around to underlining the need for digital technologies to counter the virus. In a nationwide televised telethon on April 23, the premier said that the government is ‘moving towards artificial intelligence’ to help overcome coronavirus. It was announced that a “track and trace system” for covid-19 cases was to be introduced across the country – reportedly the same system that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses in its counterterror operations.
Experts maintain that bolstering technological usage will be critical in the elimination of the pandemic around the world. This is especially true in the case of Pakistan, wherein the initial outbreak of coronavirus was owing to a large scale technological and healthcare failure.
The returning pilgrims from Iran through the Taftan border – one of the two epicenters of the covid-19 explosion in Pakistan, along with the Tableeghi Jamaat Ijtema at Raiwind in March – weren’t properly screened owing to lack of diagnostic kits, and were then sent into a quarantine center that lacked even the most basic healthcare facilities.
Since the news of the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, at the turn of the year, countries around the world have used a combination of old and new medical technologies to limit the impact of the virus and flatten the epidemiological curve. These have ranged from basic thermal detection at entry points to complex robotics.
The hospital built in Wuhan to cater to the initial outbreak, for instance, only has robots as part of its staff. China has also used Baidu’s autonomous vehicles ‘Apollo’ and drones to offer a range of medical services.
As covid-19 was growing from its initial epicenter to transform into an epidemic, and then a WHO sanctioned pandemic, it became increasingly clear that equipment required to fight the ‘biggest global crisis since World War II’ wouldn’t be limited to medicinal technology.
Enter big data.
In December 2019, Canadian health monitoring platform BlueDot, and Boston-based HealthMap, had issued AI algorithm based warnings regarding the spread of covid-19. However, given that no heed had been paid to such warnings around the world, it became obvious by March that AI cannot be used to forestall this pandemic – only to fight its devastation.
Many data scientists had begun ringing alarm bells over a repeat of the Google Flu Trends failure at a time when covid-19 cases were precipitously spiking the world over. It became apparent that the utility of big data and AI, throughout most of 2020, would focus on surveillance.
By mid-March countries around the world had begun imposing lockdowns to limit unnecessary movement of the masses. In order to keep a check on lockdown breaches, governments started to track areas with higher density of covid-19 cases and monitor the movement of coronavirus patients. For this, positioning technologies, satellite monitoring, facial recognition and mobile tracking have been used worldwide.
Russia has been using facial recognition through its 170,000-camera system to impose the lockdown. The Spanish National Scientific Research Council is coupling nationwide mobile data with computer science and data techniques to monitor social distancing, while at the same time generating algorithms to determine when, and how, to gradually lift the lockdowns.
South Korea is extracting data from credit card transactions, GPS locations, CCTV, facial scans, temperature monitors and medical records to channelize its own lockdowns. Citizens in Israel are receiving personalized texts using contact tracing algorithms to keep them updated about their localities.
Where the developed world has been successful in implementing a wide range of digital technologies, questions remain over the resources in the developing world. Even so, despite the limited facilities, there’s a lot that AI has to offer a country like Pakistan.
Simon Greenman, Co-Founder and Partner at Best Practice AI, highlights that big data and artificial intelligence can help Pakistan gradually overcome the coronavirus crisis.
“You can use chatbots as symptom checkers, which are made readily available. They can offer recommendations. In hospitals with limited doctors, limited ventilators, AI can help provide triage and diagnostic capabilities,” he says.
Greenman further reiterates the visual usage of AI, claiming that doctors can be helped in diagnosis and also managing the unprecedented levels of workload.
“AI can read, it is good at vision. The CT scan, for instance, can help doctors analyze and diagnose. AI can say we think these 2-3 patients are more at risk, deal with them first. AI can even listen to people and start to diagnose on the basis of that,” he adds.
Even so, while Greenman reaffirms AI’s benefits in resource planning, forecasting, allocating and prioritizing, he believes that big data needs to be democratically accessed. He maintains that governments need to build trust by ensuring that AI ethics are followed.
“European data regulators recommend that any data provided should be on a voluntary basis, what remains to be seen is whether or not it would be effective. Everyone likes the principle of voluntary, but it’s important for it to be effective. Under the right governance and mandate, within defined limits, the government can earn trust,” Greenman maintains.
Global rights groups demand independent body oversight, along with requisite transparency and accountability at a time states around the world are fast-tracking the usage of big data. In January, South Korea passed amendments to three major data privacy laws. In March, Israel passed emergency laws allowing it to access data to create its AI-driven algorithms.
Legal experts note how crises, especially spread of viral diseases, have historically been used to implement ‘’under the radar’’ self-serving measures through emergency legislations, under the garb of public health and safety.
Cyber law analyst, and a partner at Macesic & Partners, Ivana Manovelo warns that without proper legal framework, lack of control mechanisms and low level of public scrutiny, many countries will use the crisis for implementation of surveillance measures beyond covid-19.
“A proper legal framework exists if limitations of constitutional rights satisfy the tests of proportionality and necessity, i.e. measures have to be specific, explicitly regulated, used only in extreme circumstances and time-limited. In countries where those concerns already existed before the pandemic, generally, the legal challenge is even greater,” she says while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.
In Croatia, for instance, the government’s attempt to amend the Croatian Electronic Communications Act was thwarted by the opposition. However, the Constitutional Court in Taiwan has upheld all government actions in accordance with the Communicable Disease Control Act (CDC Act), which many believe was an offshoot of the devastation caused by the 2003 SARS outbreak.
Legal analysts also underline AI as a legally challenging field, given the technology’s recent development. What also complicates legislation is the evolution of the technology itself which makes it difficult to foresee all possible implications and the corresponding legal limitations needed.
“As AI and Big data provide both opportunities and risks – especially to the right to personal data protection and privacy, among others – creating a safe regulatory framework would be the first great step towards bringing trust and decreasing “loopholes” for potential misuse. Once the health crisis starts to subside globally, it will be a perfect time to tackle these issues,” adds Manovelo.
While Pakistani rights groups would be looking to resume their struggle for digital rights once the pandemic subsides, their fight for data privacy long predates covid-19. Over a month before the first coronavirus case was reported in the country, there were protests against the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 led by rights groups and tech companies. Just as the coronavirus was growing into a pandemic, the Pakistan government approved its ‘social media rules’ which rights activists criticized as measures to increase clampdown on dissent and freedom of speech.
Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 has already been under fire for not sufficiently protecting user’s data. Even more question marks have been raised over the state’s implementation of the cyber laws and its active participation in arbitrary surveillance of the citizens.
Nighat Dad, founder of Digital Rights Foundation, also expresses concerns over the surveillance measures placed to counter covid-19 potentially outlasting the pandemic in Pakistan. She believes that if the current surveillance methods go on unchecked and unchallenged then even more restrictions are inevitable in post-coronavirus Pakistan.
Rights groups have long urged the government to set boundaries within which it operates. Now they’re demanding delineation of a roadmap for data protection, once the threat of the virus subsides. Dad maintains that the inevitable foray of AI into healthcare and public safety needs to be finalized after taking all stakeholders on board.
“Before any government sets out to include powerful technology like AI into their policies, they need to engage with civil society and minority groups especially to better understand their concerns revolving around such mechanisms. An inclusive policy will work better to help protect the most vulnerable people as best possible,” she says.
Rights activists also demand that before big data is implemented within the realm of healthcare, there be appropriate data protection laws in place to keep an individual’s health records safe and within the control of the individual.
Concerns over lack of data protection expounded in April, after the Rewterz threat intelligence team claimed that they had found 115 million Pakistani citizens’ personal data for sale on the dark web. While the claims weren’t substantiated, federal authorities have been put on notice for the alleged data breach.
Senate Standing Committee on Interior Chairperson Rehman Malik directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to investigate the data leak. The Sindh High Court has put the secretaries of Information Technology and Interior along with chairpersons of PTA and NADRA on notice.
This development has pushed the government to streamline the constitution of a Data Protection Authority, and seek consultation on Personal Data Protection Bill, 2020. What has further increased the urgency of legislation over online data protection, is the spike in internet usage for a wide range of activities from attaining educational degrees to running businesses.
The need for legislation on data protection is further enhanced with Pakistan increasingly using online healthcare facilities amidst the pandemic. The country has witnessed a surge in telemedicine practice during the lockdowns with telehealth services being offered at home. Organizations like doctHERs, Tele Polyclinic, Find My Doctor, Aman TeleHealth, Ring a Doctor, and others, are offering online medical treatment.
“This has heightened the risk of data leaks and the prevalence of practices that are not secure due to low internet literacy in a country like Pakistan. It is vital now, for our Data Protection Bill to be efficient and adequate for the world it has to operate in,” says Nighat Dad.
“This means we need an autonomous body presiding over the law and its implementation. There needs to be a clear definition of what is vital data,” she adds.
Political analysts have warned that governments with authoritarian streaks can misuse the covid-19 crisis to extend their grip over the states.
In European countries like Hungary and Serbia, new sets of measures have been introduced to keep a check on the masses. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has extended his powers to rule by decree, where soldiers are ubiquitous in Serbia.
Russia and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are asking everyone going out to submit their reasons, following which their smartphones will be tracked throughout the time they’re outside the lockdown. Bahrain has implemented electronic tags for coronavirus patients.
Dibyesh Anand, the Head of School of Social Sciences at London’s University of Westminster, underlines the overlap of technology and totalitarianism, which can take place under authoritarian rules.
“The coronavirus crisis is being used opportunistically by undemocratic and authoritarian forces to bolster greater surveillance and control over the public in the name of protection. Not only are new technologies being experimented without regard for privacy and digital rights, but even the language of ‘we are all in this together’ or ‘virus does not differentiate’ papers over severe problems socially marginalized communities and individuals are facing,” he says.
Anand believes that rather than learning to be more humane and shifting priorities from militaries to health and education, states are likely to use scapegoating to blame minorities for ‘spreading the virus’ without any ramping up of medical facilities. He predicts that human rights movements, protests, and civil society gatherings could be disallowed in the name of combating the virus.
Many have been critical of China’s handling of the covid-9 crisis, especially its lack of transparency. In addition to silencing whistleblowers, Beijing has implemented strict restrictions on the sharing of information, expelling many foreign journalists including those from New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
“Initial spread of the disease was significantly due to China’s political system where the authoritarian structures imply the local and mid-ranking officials will hide a problem to save their skins. It took almost two months for China to let the world know there was a crisis and by then it was quite late,” believes Anand.
“Yet, China’s apparent success in controlling after initial bungling up is now being propagandized as the way forward even though that method is based on absolute surveillance and control over the population. This has severe challenges for any democratic society.”
Beijing’s success story is being lauded in Pakistan as well, with Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly alluding to China as the example to follow in the fight against covid-19. With Islamabad’s already strong ties with Beijing growing through the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), leaked reports have revealed that Pakistan’s digital policies have also been aligned with China.
This has resulted in a hike in digital surveillance and online censorship, called out by rights groups at the end of the previous decade. The clampdown on free speech in the country was exemplified by Reporters Sans Frontieres ranking Pakistan 145 out of 180 countries on press freedom index – six positions lower than where it was two years ago.
Rights activists and political analysts underline that the plummeting freedom of speech in the country, coupled with the problematic data protection and cybersecurity laws make Pakistan fertile for surveillance practices outlasting covid-19. For many, the use of technology in the aftermath of covid-19, including the “track and trace system”, will be definitive indicators if Pakistan formally transforms into a surveillance state.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist based in Lahore.