At the start of 2020, the urgent need to quickly contain COVID-19 across the world meant that alongside direct medical and clinical strategies, most countries tried to restrict the majority of the population's movements in some way (e.g. 'lockdown', or social distancing measures). Simultaneously, and perhaps even because of the reduction in face-to-face interactions, there was also a push to rapidly increase the digitalisation of most aspects in life. From home-schooling via video-conferencing platforms to contact tracing apps, most countries' economic, educational, social, societal, cultural and physical wellbeing and survival seemed to place a heavy emphasis on the need for digital tools as an effective response to the global crisis, with some sectors even thriving because of this. As an immediate measure to save and protect human lives, digital tools seem like a viable and necessary solution. But what are the implications of these digital tools and responses on human rights? How are they subject to misuse? Can there be a viable balance between protecting human lives and rights? For example, there is a fine line between data collection as a mode of monitoring the coronavirus, and data collection as a mode of surveillance on citizens, or the selling of this data for commercial purposes (Google and Apple have been at the forefront of pandemic digital tools). Take contact tracing technologies which use smartphone features such as GPS. Such tools are promoted as part of an important collective and social responsibility towards fighting COVID-19, yet these often infringe upon privacy and human rights as a mode of surveillance. As many countries slowly attempt to come out of the pandemic, 'vaccine passports' are another pandemic digital tool implemented in some places, which raise similar concerns relating to the infringement of privacy and potential discrimination. Furthermore, such technologies developed as part of the digital response to containing COVID-19 can be weaponised in ways that are often gendered, sexualised, racialised, classed and ableist by (mis)using data for classification, targeting and profiling. As such, whilst trackers have been used for policing, commercial and state surveillance long before the pandemic, when blurred with the need for clinical data collection and tracking to save lives, the darker side of such digital tools becomes even more obscured. As some of these digital tools developed during the pandemic will no doubt be retained beyond the immediate coronavirus crisis, what are the implications upon human rights as we globally begin to emerge out of the pandemic?

Cite as

Miyake, E. 2021, 'Are the digital tools we’ve got used to during the pandemic subject to misuse?', EachOther. Available at: https://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/78578/

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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