COVID-19 and the digital game-changer momentum

In some years, I will probably see the current period of COVID-19 outbreak as an era, which has changed nearly everything. From the patterns of my work (very productive online cooperation, which, however, may give some employers additional tools for surveillance) to social life (offline limitations and online chances). From education (the new architecture of my remote classes with students, which requires the proper quality of the network), to the new schemes of digital cultural participation. Think of the excellent online performances enjoyed by all of us, such as the concert of Andrea Bocelli from the empty cathedral in Milano.

Paradoxically, this completely unpredictable disease has become the global game-changer, influencing both the current times and the future. The COVID-19 experience clearly shows what was, and is, most important: a substantial increase in the significance of digital opportunities. The new, post-Corona world will become more digital than we could ever have imagined.

One part of me is afraid of this digital breakthrough. The other is full of hope.

Firstly, use the data efficiently and adequately!

Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can predict the trajectories of COVID-19’s dissemination (through modelling) and prepare warning policies, including for the second and possible third wave of the outbreak.

These predictions depend on the massive delivery of the data needed. How to collect it? As it was done one month ago by Deutsche Telecom, without the possibility of identifying individuals (the data was provided to the Robert Koch Institute in aggregated form). We can also follow the experiment of South Korea with the possibility of identifying individuals, legally introduced to know more about human contacts (tracing): the new algorithmic solution with full automation of all processes reduced contact-tracing time from 24 hours to 10 minutes.

The special apps and data will be a crucial instrument for health crisis management, or rather the e-management of the health crisis.

Such applications should be voluntary (but 60% of participation is needed for efficiency) for us, citizens, as the European Commission suggests; they should also be based on privacy protection (proportionate and targeted use) with a growing awareness of the need for consent given by an individual. Clearly, these apps should use anonymised data. Additionally, they could use the decentralised model of collecting data by Bluetooth instruments, which is currently offered by Google and Apple. Of course, it should be known what kind of data retention rules ought to be implemented, for what period of time, and how to include the terms of the “sunset clause” into some solutions. In some cases, we need to consider how to make legitimate use of the GDPR. In all cases, we should check what the impact of those digital tools on civil rights is. This is the only way to avoid tensions and redundant controversies.

All those principles must function as a European approach, with a full agreement between the European Commission, the Member States, and the European Data Protection Supervisor.

Secondly, be connected!

The question is whether the parameters of connectivity are sufficient. The current experience shows deficits and the necessity for improvement. For example, the lack of accessibility to the Internet in rural areas (it turns out this is a major issue in the US). On a global level, there is a deficit of the possibilities to use networks in developing countries (low level of quality and access). And this is to say nothing of the enormous lack of digital literacy among many groups, especially elderly people. Additionally, we see a lack of full semantic interoperability of operational systems or software in Europe, which hinders cooperation in many areas, including in healthcare, which is now proving crucial. 

Digital opportunities revealed, at the same time, the growing threat of the digital divide. Hence, we need to accelerate the works on 5G implementation, fully taking into account the challenge of cybersecurity and the need to build a European system of certificates and skills for risk analysis and management. My view is clear, and often in contradiction to those of experts and governments. We should not postpone these works.

Thirdly, build trust!

Trust is essential for two reasons: cybersecurity and privacy. The more digital we are, the more threats we face.

On the cybersecurity front, we are seeing a new context. The massive scale of mobile devices and communication channels used is already provoking cybercrime organisations to expand their activities. These actors range from mafia groups to the completely out of control Darknet, to some states conducting digital industrial espionage or disinformation campaigns. There are many reports demonstrating Chinese and Russian involvement in disinformation measures. There are also many instances of new forms of digital espionage and hacking activities.

Necessary resilience should be guaranteed by the proper institutions, such as ENISA, Europol, as well as the member states and tech companies, but also by all of us, ready to use the “cyber hygiene” tools. The key challenge is to convince citizens in all member states that data is like the air (not only like oil): we need it to be able to breathe and to function.

Also, the significance of artificial intelligence is undeniable. It is high time to discuss the European Strategy on AI (White Paper), and clearly and publicly show why we need AI and how it should be governed (by law and by oversight, with what kind of partners, based on ethical norms and standards). We must also avoid mistakes by creating potential discriminatory schemes.

This is the opportunity to make a giant leap, combining new digital tools and AI, and changing the paradigm of the healthcare model. We need to speed up clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine, work on biotechnologies useful for new medicines, have better diagnostic instruments, as well as personalised recognition and therapies.

Sitting at home, seeing the coming of spring outside the window, I cannot stop thinking about the growing digital opportunities during the outbreak. The conclusion is simple: we must seize these opportunities. This is the digital game-changer momentum.