To sum up the technology scene in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help borrowing the famous – and clichéd – opening lines from Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
The best of times because the year witnessed technology as a great enabler that touched the daily lives and well-being of people across the world like never before.
The worst because the very same technology has also become a powerfully invasive surveillance tool in the hands of governments and corporates that invade our privacy and manipulate our thoughts in ways that could make George Orwell turn in his grave.
The digital divide and its inherent inequalities notwithstanding, technology is the foremost thing that is helping us stay connected, informed, and productive as we continue to fight the pandemic.
Big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are tremendously helping in various studies about understanding the virus and the pandemic and research for vaccines and medicines.
It is quite astonishing to see how tech companies, businesses, and people have come together amid the pandemic to keep things from falling apart.
A popular joke says it is COVID-19, and not the CEO or CIO, that is driving the digital transformation in companies.
While it is true that the companies have been nimble-footed in adopting new technologies and processes to overcome the COVID-19 challenge, the real transformation seems to have happened in the personal space – people, many of whom were content being laggards, have quickly picked up new technologies to survive the socially-distanced world.
Online shopping and digital payments; remote working and distance learning; telemedicine; and online streaming entertainment are some of the areas where we saw technology having a direct impact in our daily lives. Video calling, messaging technologies and the high-speed internet infrastructure do deserve a special mention, too.
Been there, done that! Haven’t you?
When travel curbs were imposed by various governments, it was the video calling apps that helped people connect with their loved ones elsewhere.
The ability to see and talk with each other seems to have played a key role in alleviating the collective trauma and psychological distress caused by the unprecedented situation.
Video conferencing also helped businesses connect with employees and partners from remote locations without completely losing the human element.
Video calling and conferencing apps and services logged explosive growths after the pandemic disrupted normal life. To their credit, the companies responded well by scaling up to cater to the ever-growing demand and enhancing the app capabilities.
Online shopping and digital payments registered high rates of growth during this period. For the Indian e-commerce industry, 2020 is seen as a watershed year as the sector added about 40% new customers immediately after the lockdown ended. During this period, digital payments also gained wide currency. The unified payments interface (UPI) transactions in India recorded a year-on-year growth of 88 percent in volume and 99 percent in value during Q2 (July, August, September) 2020. Remember, this is coming from an economy that is technically in recession.
Work from home, does that work for you?
The year also witnessed many companies, including those that were previously reluctant in providing work from home options, switching to remote working for smooth and continuous operations. The companies were quick in scaling up their infrastructure to support near 100 percent remote connections to the company resources.
Speaking purely from a technology perspective, the pandemic has proved that remote working and online collaboration are seamless and feasible.
Another click in the class; no, the teacher isn’t leaving you alone
Another area where technology played a big role in the year of the pandemic is the learning front with millions of students started attending online classes and using e-learning modules.
However, the challenges in accessibility and affordability that prevail in our country further widened the digital divide with the less privileged having little access to the new age education tools.
But initiatives like Kerala Government’s K-FON, which envisages high-speed internet at affordable prices, and many groups working at the grassroot level to provide students the necessary infrastructure are aimed at addressing such concerns.
Doctor is online
Telemedicine services offered by hospitals and doctors either through specialized applications or by using a video calling application helped people who needed reviews and consultations receive medical advice from the safety of their homes.
People who need to travel to far away hospitals for reviews will find this a viable option unless there are complications that require physical examination by a doctor.
Netflix and chill, are you game?
The year 2020 also witnessed a massive surge in OTT viewership – the paid viewership of OTT platforms in India grew by 30%, almost 7 million users, between March and July.
This underlines how the streaming services provided the much-needed entertainment in the absence of sporting events, concerts, or film releases.
While most households in the country have just one television, streaming services provided people with the freedom to watch content of their choice on their personal devices.
Online gaming and gambling are having a boom time, too. Esports, cloud games, and online casinos are raking in big money during the crisis. Between January and July alone, 22 million gaming consoles, up 36% from the same period last year, were shipped globally.
No queues, only BevQ!
And for a Keralite, how are we going to end the technology in daily life round-up without talking about the BevQ app that saw more than a million downloads from the Play Store alone?
Who would have imagined a tippler in Kerala booking his slot in a mobile app to pick up his daily booze from a nearby liquor shop?
Well, that is yet another instance of technology coming to our daily lives as we find ways to tide over the gloomy, pandemic-spoiled year.
3D printing, drones, robots, it’s tech all the way.
We have also seen how 3D printing technology was adding flexibility to manufacturing and helping meet the demand for essentials like personal protection equipment.
In many places drones and robots were used for contactless delivery. There are no two ways about the fact that without the technology-enabled solutions, our fight against the Novel Coronavirus would have been much more difficult and different.
People whole-heartedly embraced technology, and one has every reason to hope that this is here to stay and will go a long way in improving the quality of life in the years to come.
Surveillance in the time of COVID
If you are wondering what triggered the worst of times reference in the first para, the simple answer is the overarching surveillance systems that have been put in place under the pretext of fighting the Coronavirus.
Many contact tracing apps have acted like spyware and collected information irrelevant for fighting the Coronavirus.
Often, there wasn’t clarity about who manages the data collected by the apps or the guidelines for protecting the data privacy. Governments chose to overlook safer, less-invasive, and more accurate tracking options like Google Apple Exposure Notice (GAEN), which collects and stores randomized data on user phones for accessing on a need-to-know basis, and went for less-accurate (GPS or CSLI), more invasive (data is stored in central locations without any anonymization), and sometimes unreliable (Bluetooth handshakes) methods.
The year also witnessed questionable uses of facial recognition technology so much so that some companies either stopped the research and development of facial recognition software or banned its use by police.
However, many governments the world over are looking for ways to further the use of such questionable technologies.
Surveillance tech and spyware are thriving as most of the countries do not have guidelines or policies about their use. Though the European Union is putting in place guidelines on the sale of surveillance equipment and software, the governments will find a way to sidestep the guidelines.
Beware, scammers are on the prowl
A fallout of the hurried digital embrace following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is the spike in digital frauds. As the new users are ignorant about the cybersecurity pitfalls, scamsters and fraudsters are working overtime, and there has been a 500% increase in cybercrimes. According to India’s national security advisor, financial frauds have seen exponential increase due to greater dependence on digital payment platforms.
Privacy takes a toll
The latest development that should worry people regarding governmental surveillance is the move by the Indian government to implement a GPS-based toll collection system in collaboration with a Russian agency.
The system intends to geofence all highways in the country to track entry and exit of vehicles for deducting the toll amount directly from the owner’s bank account.
It not only exposes bank accounts to possible frauds, but also leaves your travel details with the government. Many seem to be happy that the proposed system will relieve them of occasional long queues at toll plazas but overlook the fact that such a tracking can be quite detrimental to our right to privacy, which was declared a fundamental right by the Supreme Court.
Another worrying aspect is the data collection by the big corporates. It gives ones the chills to see how social media platforms are used and misused for manipulating public opinions.
Many of the companies seem to be listening into our conversations and monitoring our online behaviors in ways that can be described as creepy and using those data for manipulating our views and choices.
Again, companies are exploiting our apathy towards protecting privacy and are cashing in our personal data.
With the political leaderships across the globe, including in democracies, drifting towards right-wing authoritarianism, there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful interventions happening in the digital space to regulate or protect the personal data collection and usage.
If you watch the trends closely, there are enough reasons to worry about how politicians and corporates are going to misuse technology to further their divisive agendas, crush dissent, and manipulate public opinion.
Unless things drastically change in the way we deal with our data and there are proper checks and balances regarding its usage by others, I am afraid the ‘worst of times’ tag will remain true for years to come.
(The author is a technical writer based in Bengaluru)