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Stay vigilant. COVID-19 and the digital age

How many of you had not heard of any video conferencing tools besides Skype before 2020? Once the government and medics began urging people to stay home, and many companies and universities were forced to find alternative communication methods, a technological boom was just a matter of time.

Currently, the shares of Zoom Video Communications are valued at 164.69 billion dollars – 142% more than at the beginning of last year. It is worth as much as seven leading airlines (Southwest, Delta, United, IAG, Lufthansa, American Airlines and Air France-KLM) altogether. Until 2020, Zoom was primarily known among corporate structures. But thanks to the pandemic, it has also managed to enter the distance learning territory, becoming a major competition to technology giants such as Microsoft (Microsoft Teams) and Google (Google Meet). We may have learned new ways of communication in the age of social distancing. And despite many issues related to technology use, such as the rather old-fashioned education system being forced to adapt to completely new teaching methods, there are still concerns that should be stated.

Travels with a special passport?

In 2020, as one of the ways of ‘coming back to normality,’ digital certificates of vaccination for COVID-19 and the so-called immunological passports (Travel Pass) were proposed. Such an idea becomes attractive mostly by often presenting them as being necessary to travel in the post-COVID times, which naturally has led to COVID deniers and conspiracy theory enthusiasts strongly opposing it. While it is worth recalling that until 1922, many schools in the United States required, as a condition of admission, that children be vaccinated against smallpox; what we have now is the omnipresent digitality which can be both utopian and dystopian.

Many questions should be asked. Putting ‘COVID passports’ into use could, for instance, lead to discrimination against people that cannot get a vaccine due to health reasons and to an increase in global social inequalities as the underdeveloped countries cannot always afford such a necessityt like a vaccine. And, most importantly - what about privacy and data protection?

The COVID-19 passport in the form of a digital certificate confirming vaccination has already been implemented in Singapore. Since the 10th of March, everyone has been required to use the digital certification instead of its paper equivalent. This solution is based on blockchain technology, which is to guarantee that the certificates will be safe. They cannot be forged and used contrary to their intended use. A digital document is required for those wishing to move beyond Singapore's borders and is highly interfaced with other government digital services.

Safety dilemmas

The talks about digital immunological passports started a year ago, causing a lot of suspicion regarding the matters of data protection. Especially having in mind ProteGO Safe - a Polish app created by the Ministry of Development to track social contacts during the pandemic. Since the very beginning of the app’s existence back in April 2020, it aroused distrust among its potential users. I had concerns as to whether it would be fully developed, safe, and GDPR compliant. Although its effectiveness depends on the number of downloads, many people, myself included, decided not to install it.

And such a decision was fully supported by not only the privacy watchdogs such as the Panoptykon Foundation but also the app creators themselves. Gosia Fraser, a journalist focusing on social and privacy aspects of technology, underlines that it was the issue of the lack of certain clarifications regarding data processing, ‘the importance of scrutiny on the elements of automated decision-making related to risk assessment,’ and raising questions about the voluntary nature of the app.

However, on the 17th of March 2021, the European Commission presented a clear project for Digital Green Passes, which is supposed to ease the movement around the EU during the pandemic. The Digital Green Pass will be to prove (in form of a free certification) that a person was vaccinated, got tested negative for COVID-19, or is a convalescent. It will be available in either a digital or paper form and include a QR code supposed to guarantee safety and certification authenticity. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, stressed that the Green Pass is only a temporary solution until WHO announces the end of the international public health emergency caused by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Michael O'Leary announced that Ryanair will soon implement the requirement of submitting a vaccination certificate and a negative coronavirus test result to the airline as part of the booking process. Currently, the vast majority of countries already require a negative COVID-19 test to cross the border. The ways of dealing with the pandemic slowly become an inseparable part of our lives - and most importantly - inseparably digital.

The future is now

The movement of people is not the only area of ​​life that is somehow affected by new technologies. There is a growing number of ‘pandemic gadgets – starting with the machines purifying the air with the use of UV rays, which can be used to disinfect a car, glasses and other selected items, and a refrigerator disinfecting the water dispenser with UV light. ‘Antibacterial’ is the promotional hit of the season.

There is also the cultural sector, particularly hit by the pandemic, that, just like the education, had to seek new ways to stay active and relevant. Museums offer virtual tours, clubs play live music online, cinemas enter the realm of their opponents and have started to offer streaming of both old and new films.

And this is how we come to the topic of Virtual Reality, which can be useful not only for the cultural sector but also for education and travelling. Cerevo has created shoes that, thanks to haptic technology, enables users to experience the virtual world through the sense of touch. While Alive Studios offers educators a new way of learning - their app allows students to ‘touch’ the letters and numbers without 3D glasses. Also, the upcoming global trend is Extended Reality (XR), a combination of VR, AR (allowing to impose virtual objects on the image of the real world, e.g. ‘Pokemon Go’) and MR (a hybrid reality in which digital objects and real objects coexist and can interact with each other). XR can be used for training soldiers, doctors, and pilots, which help them understand how to work in risky circumstances without risking their own health.

The main goal of platforms using AI would be to facilitate the organisation of work for participants in remote meetings. AI would follow the course of the meeting, transcribe all statements, note dates and send participants notifications about upcoming events. It is said that, consequently, the employer would benefit from this as he could analyse the behaviour, productivity, and get information about how many times you had spoken in the discussion. But it definitely raises questions of ethics.

We are living in an era of many doubts and concerns, our future is still not clear, and it is changing day by day. We can only imagine how fast new technologies, which now are just an abstraction, will step into our lives. Wait, watch new technology trends, but also be vigilant. The VR glasses and the so-called immunological passports may seem like they do not have much in common, but both of them, along with any other digitality-based innovations, influence our lives both now and in the future. It is not about ‘what will we gain’ but ‘how.’ New can be frightening but remember that technology depends on people to decide its purpose and application.

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