Is technology the answer? | Daily News

Is technology the answer?

The media focus on the pandemic is so overwhelming that it seems end to end coverage is the order of the day. That may be an exaggeration, but readers and viewers do have a surfeit of Covid related material to digest. In this flurry of coverage, some focused and useful, others sensationalist and somewhat disruptive, perspective can be lost on the nature of the issue.

It can be useful sometimes to dwell on some peripheral concerns that the media coverage has given rise to. Some of these are connected to measures related to contact-tracing.

Everybody that visits any commercial establishment these days is required to jot down personal details. Most establishments require data such as phone contacts and NIC number.

Patrons have not been grudging, aware of the difficulties involved in managing the crisis. They are conscious that they benefit from the fact that their information is provided to establishments which may report an outbreak.

However, personal information provided in this way may sometimes fall into wrong hands. The chances are slim as most responsible and civic conscious persons will not misuse personal data, especially at a critical juncture like this.

But certain persons are not entirely comfortable with giving their personal information and females and younger folk may find that providing their details is less than desirable. Others may think they are at risk too, as there are banks etc. that ask for identification by way of supplementary material such as NIC number when individuals transact in this digital age.

That anyone who has access to sensitive information such as NIC numbers would be able to put this information to use in any manner that is detrimental to the provider of the data is extremely doubtful. Those who want to use such information have to be experts at identity theft, and must also have the detective skills to track somebody’s movements.

Yet, there is some invasion of privacy from the incessant requests for sensitive personal information. It is not the authorities’ fault. They have an enormous battle on their hands, and the rules for disclosure have not been made lightly.

In this context, it’s a happy augur that the “Stay Safe” digital method designed under the guidance of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) seeks a way out of this gamble with the voluntary give-away of personal data.

ICTA seeks to digitize information and the access is only by QR code. Of course personal data is still required, but the assumption is that it will be accessible only on a need-to-know basis. Nobody is fully aware of how much of the data can be retracted when necessary, and how the app proposes to take over the functions of pen and paper or indeed if it does so at all.

There is the other problem of the potential proliferation rate of the app. To reduce the issue to its rudiments, not everybody is equipped with a smartphone, and some who do own one are not tech-savvy enough to operate an app and enter QR codes etc. to manipulate the device for desired results.

The intent is laudable, but whether the practicality of using such a device would allow for widespread proliferation in society is somewhat in doubt. This is not to be cynical, or to take away in any manner from the innovative spirit of the ICTA digital community that devised the app.

But, innovation certainly has to be the spirit. Even though every grandma and average mobile user may not be able to use such a device, it may still be useful, and may be put to productive use at least among the relatively tech-savvy able to use such an innovation. Generally, apps of this nature are so basic that the term ‘tech-savvy’ is a misnomer in describing the potential ability of the average individual to install and perform the basic functions of the app.

The current system of writing down details with a pen on paper does have additional drawbacks. There are many who would rather not touch a pen that is used by thousands at the entrance to a supermarket or a bank. The answer of course is to bring your own ballpoint, but people are not used to carrying pens in this digital age, and moreover plastic ballpoints do tend to get misplaced when they fall out of pockets.

Perfect solutions are not available and no reasonable person expects them. Sri Lankans have been extremely adaptable, and generally comply with all Covid related requirements without a murmur.

But complacency regarding risks of identity theft etc. is also not desirable. That is not to panic people or suggest there is any realistic risk. But sooner these requirements are deemed unnecessary the better it is, and digital innovators at ICTA and all others attempting better solutions deserve encouragement and applause. They may not have all the solutions to the satisfaction of all, but if they manage to provide some alternative methods, their efforts may be of use to a large segment of the tech-literate population.