Emerging Trends
May 19, 2020

Digital cooperation during COVID-19: public health, digital responses and human rights ​

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau; and Fabrizio Hochschild, Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser, UN

As countries around the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, digital technologies have played a critical role in global efforts to counter the pandemic. While the benefits are unprecedented, however, these same technologies can also pose risks and challenges.

Phone apps, for example, have been deployed to support contact tracing efforts, notifying people who have been in close contact with COVID-positive patients. Artificial intelligence-based technologies can limit the spread of the virus by successfully alerting an individual to infectiousness well before symptoms appear.

But as we move to implement these digital responses to prevent the spread of the virus, we must ensure that they do not impact citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. The implementation and use of digital technologies to promote public health must remain compliant with the rule of law, and respect ethical values. Privacy and data protection are paramount in this regard.

These issues were discussed by a panel of experts during the fifth and final webinar in the UN-ITU series on “Digital Cooperation during COVID19 and beyond,” on 13 May 2020.

In introducing the session, H.E Kyung-Wha Kang, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, said: “The use of our advanced digital tools has certainly been critical, but they alone would not have won the trust of the public. In the end, technology is only as good or bad as the use that it’s put to. We have put digital tools to good use in the service of the people in fighting COVID-19, and that’s how trust has been won.”

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, added that “there are worrying examples of general surveillance in some parts of Europe, which raises concerns about compatibility with human rights standards governing data protection”. Jean-Pierre Hubaux, Head of the Laboratory for Data Security of EPFL, underlined that while digital epidemiology inevitably involves processing non-medical, granular and proprietary data types, respecting patient privacy requires re-thinking data sharing between public authorities and medical institutions.

Steve Crown, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Human Rights at Microsoft, raised the question as to when it would be appropriate to reverse some of the human rights compromises that we might have been willing to entertain during the pandemic. This led to another – potentially more significant – question: are our human rights paradigms up-to-date for the digital era?

Human rights norms were conceived of in a pre-digital era. To interpret them for the digital era is a complex undertaking which requires cooperation across sectors and states.

As pointed out by Urs Gasser, Executive Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, we are developing technologies that will live beyond the virus. This requires a collective effort to put the necessary safeguards in place.

We need more multi-stakeholder exchanges, to find common ground to drive a global agenda forward that not only increases connectivity but also makes sure that it is safe, secure, and fully human rights compliant. As always, the need for digital cooperation is crucial. Every actor in the digital ecosystem has an important role to play.

We have an opportunity where “every stakeholder group can proactively shape how digital technologies are conceived, deployed, implemented and monitored in the communities they envision to serve,” said Nanjira Sambuli, Member of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

In our scramble to respond to this unprecedented global threat, we must not lose sight of the need to protect hard won rights – if we discard them during this period of the pandemic, it will prove very difficult to retrieve them once the crisis is over.

As Bernardo Mariano, Director of Digital Health and Innovation at WHO, said, responding to this crisis “requires from all of us, the best of us.”

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Digital cooperation during COVID-19: public health, digital responses and human rights ​

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