COVID-19 Exposes Gaps in Governance of Emerging Technologies

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

 

By Elisabeth Dubois
Ph.D. Student in Information Science, University at Albany
evdubois@albany.edu

 

Synopsis: Understanding the growing trend and reliance on emerging digital technologies, and the need for their improved governance, will be critical in the response to COVID-19 and future crises.

Keywords: emerging technologies, COVID-19, governance, cybersecurity, privacy, digital divide

 

 

Around the world, the growth of emerging technologies has been particularly evident over the past decade. Yet, the reliance on and impact of emerging technologies on society has exponentially increased amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Emerging technologies are those whose development and practical applications are not yet fully recognized or are obscured. Prior to COVID-19, the potential and importance of emerging collaborative technologies like videoconferencing platforms (e.g. Zoom) was not fully understood. Now, with much of the world under lockdown, millions of citizens are turning to telework and remote education. Emerging technologies like Zoom are being deployed in an effort to maintain “business as usual.”

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of emerging technologies as not simply complementary tools, but essential to the functionality of daily life, society, and the economy. The world is relying on these technologies like never before, making it necessary to match technological innovation with appropriate organizations, policies, and practices to not only enable the world to emerge from the pandemic, but also prepare it for future crises. A global perspective is necessary to maximize the benefits and limit the risks of new collaborative technologies. Yet, emerging technologies are currently under-regulated, and pose serious risks to cybersecurity, privacy, and the digital divide.

 

Cybersecurity

A multitude of global governance institutions are currently trying, with varying degrees of success, to maintain multilateral dialogue during the crisis. International organizations and government agencies have emphasized the security gaps stemming from the rapid shift to remote communication, including unsecured technologies, protection of sensitive information, virtual network access, and unfamiliarly with the technologies being utilized. By using Zoom and similar telecommunication technologies, the cybersecurity implications for the international dialogues taking place are a concern. “Zoombombing,” or hacking into Zoom calls, has become a security threat to students, employees, and businesses alike. Moreover, malicious actors are capitalizing on the fears surrounding COVID-19 by conducting phishing or malicious attacks, with said attacks increasing 350% since the beginning of the crisis. For many businesses, good cyber hygiene is already part of their internal governance, yet given the remote workspaces and inconsistency among organizations worldwide, maintaining hygiene or security is a challenge. The potential security risks presented by emerging technology, accentuated by COVID-19, highlight the need for a global baseline in cybersecurity to help understand the risks of each device and network. This global baseline could be driven by non-state actors such as the Center for Internet Security (CIS) – a non-profit entity that aims to safeguard private and public organizations against cyber threats – to establish and promote norms and best practices for governments, businesses, and individuals.

 

Privacy

The use of videoconferencing for telework and education has increased exponentially in recent months. Despite the reliance-on collaborative technologies, there are several privacy and potential human rights violations that are present in using said technologies. The privacy policies of telecommunication services and other emerging technologies are often overlooked but are integral to comprehend the potential privacy implications. Much like Facebook’s privacy policy, Zoom’s privacy policy collects and stores personal data and shares it with third parties. Additionally, they collect customer content that includes videos, transcripts, documents shared on the screen, and the names of everyone on a call. According to Consumer Reports, this content can then be used for targeted advertising or to train facial recognition algorithms. When people around the world are logging onto Zoom to engage in a class discussion, attend a business meeting, or talk with a trusted confidante, few know what might be at risk in sharing via said platforms. As it stands now, there is little in place to protect people’s information on these platforms, despite their use in education and healthcare, which follow strict regulations like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The privacy protections vary among countries and there are inconsistencies and governance gaps in the protection of privacy and well-being of people around the world. This calls for enhanced governance initiatives, especially within telecommunication technologies, which can be seen at regional levels through the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

 

Digital Divide

COVID-19 has exposed some hard truths about the breadth of the digital divide in the United States and beyond. Technical access and physical hardware are necessities for telework and remote education to be successful. With millions of employees working from home and students learning remotely, broadband access and access to physical hardware is essential. Yet, millions around the world, and even in developed countries like America, simply cannot get access to or afford broadband connectivity. In the U.S. alone more than 21 million people do not have a broadband connection. Educators have been scrambling to move to online education, yet many have understood that access for some students is limited or nonexistent. The homework gap, or children whom are unable to access broadband or do not have access to technologies, affects over 12 million children in the U.S. In response to these challenges, broadband service providers are pledging to ensure individuals access and universities are providing students resources like laptops or software licenses. Although governance in emerging technologies is essential, without addressing the digital inconsistencies and challenges that are prevalent in access or use of such technologies, the underlying problems will continue during future crises.

 

The Way Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for countries and international institutions to address gaps in the provision and regulation of a variety of essential services. It has also provided a prime example of society’s reliance on, and the importance of, not only the use of collaborative technologies but the need to maximize their security, privacy, access, and reliability for all users. Building coalitions of private actors (e.g. broadband providers nationally, and the CIS globally), individual countries (e.g. U.S.) and international institutions (e.g. European Union and International Telecommunication Union), would help to improve the cybersecurity, privacy, and digital divide challenges for future crises. With all of the challenges that come with responding to and mitigating the effects of a crisis (reducing the loss of life, improving health services, and establishing connectivity), it is senseful to think about preparedness for future crises and ensure more effective governance for emerging technologies.

 

This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis”.  To read the other articles, click here.

One Reply to “COVID-19 Exposes Gaps in Governance of Emerging Technologies”

  1. Well thought out piece. Each section of the article deserves a lot of additional thought as we recover from this pandemic. I would also ask, is the digital divide (which by the way includes not just the physically disconnected but also those who refuse to connect) even more serious than you suggest by creating an enormous social gap? Will the growing reduction of person to person business and social interactions and subsequent increase in the use of technology enable those who manipulate mass thought for criminal or political purposes? Are these national security considerations?
    I certainly hope you are able to participate in national after-action initiatives to put your concerns squarely on the table for consideration.

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