Smart technology’s pandemic rise and how Thai meth barons are changing the game

Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Today, I am handing over to Coda’s Masho Lomashvili and Katia Patin for a look at the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

SMART MOVES

by Masho Lomashvili

As Covid-19 batters the global economy, many governments are slashing public spending — but there is at least one area of growth.

The pandemic has created a booming demand for smart city technologies. Across the world, state officials and urban planners believe that automated systems and interconnected data networks can help to manage and even prevent health crises. They also consider that, as factors such as Covid-19 alter people’s behavioral patterns, tech will lead the way towards creating the cities of the future.

From geo-fencing and drone surveillance in India to AI-powered thermal cameras in U.S. airports, smart technology is being widely adopted in the interest of public safety. But such tech also allows governments and private companies to gather data about our movements, lifestyles and health.

To many, this seems like a tradeoff worth making. However, according to Dr. Jung Won Sonn of University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, a great deal can be learned from this apparently innocuous information. “Religion, job, sexual orientation and political beliefs are some of the information that can be revealed by citizens’ whereabouts,” he told me.

So, let’s have a look at how smart technology is spreading across the globe:

  • In South Korea, information from the national Smart City Data Hub has been used to monitor potential contact with infected individuals. The country has also been trying to export its technological innovations, using its success in Covid-19 control “as a way to publicize what smart city tech can do and what South Korea can do inside and outside the country,” Sonn explained.
  • Singapore’s government says that tools such as tracing apps and mandatory digital check-ins have been so effective against the coronavirus that it is planning a 30% increase in spending on tools that will further monitor people’s lives. The nation’s plans include a rise in the use of data analytics, as well as artificial intelligence and smart sensors tracking everything from the movement of people to air quality in public spaces.
  • European nations have been more cautious than some others about the use of smart tech, but the pandemic seems to have erased many of those concerns. London has teamed up with Bordeaux, Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw and the Bulgarian coastal city of Burgas in a joint project to attract investment for the adoption of smart technologies. Investment in the Sharing Cities programme is set to reach €500 million by the end of 2021.
  • The United Arab Emirates has deployed a variety of hi-tech measures to combat Covid-19, including futuristic AI-powered police helmets. Now it is planning to ramp up tech investment. In 2021, the UAE’s planned healthcare expenditure will be $21.3 billion. A large part of that budget will be spent on tech designed to help manage the lifestyles of patients and tackle diseases such as the coronavirus, with plans for AI monitoring, mobile apps and smart hospitals across the country. 

The pandemic has not just made this technology more widespread — it’s making it even smarter. The increased digitization of our lives has created enormous amounts of information. Accordingly, governments across the globe have introduced new legislation to facilitate data sharing. Dr. Zaheer Allam, an urban strategist and researcher at the University of Paris, told me that this has “tremendous commercial applications and can benefit the health sector.” However, maintaining the anonymity and security of data will present a massive challenge for years to come. 

As Covid-19 immunization campaigns get underway across the world, so do counterfeit vaccination schemes. This week, we found two cases, in Mexico and China, where criminal groups were involved in selling fake Covid-19 vaccines.

  • A private clinic in the Mexican border state of Nuevo Leon has been selling counterfeit Pfizer vaccines largely made of water for up to $2,000 a shot. The clinic is now under investigation, with six people arrested so far. Gangs were behind the racket, said the state’s secretary of health. While this is the first such case in the country, experts have long warned about criminal groups attempting to profit from vaccine rollouts.
  • While Chinese censors have done their best to keep the news off the internet, reports emerged this month that, to date, more than 70 people have been arrested in 21 separate cases of fraudulent coronavirus vaccine sales. The profit margins are incredible: one man detained in November 2020 made over $2.7 million selling close to 58,000 doses of counterfeit vaccine. 

North Korea is discussing vaccination plans that will prioritize a “core class” of citizens. Those identified as most loyal to the regime — including veterans of the Korean War, family members of revolutionary figures and the government’s leading officials — are to be first in line. In parts of the country, ultra-strict lockdown measures remain in place, compelling people to stay at home at all times or face hard labor as punishment.

With coronavirus disrupting international drug export routes, Thailand’s meth barons are courting new buyers at home. Prices are so low that today methamphetamine pills sell for as little as $1.50 a piece, causing dealers to chase after a new group of working-class addicts. “You don’t just sell to meet existing demand,” Jeremy Douglas of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP. “You create demand.” According to a U.N. report, the pandemic has upended illegal drug markets around the world in ways not seen since World War II.

As always, we are tracking these stories and more at codastory.com and on our Coda Currents weekly podcast. 

A special thanks to Achi Tsitsishvili, Isobel Cockerell and Makuna Berkatsashvili this week for helping us put together the Infodemic. Have a great weekend and Natalia will be back with you next Friday.

Katia Patin and Masho Lomashvili

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Katia Patin

Katia Patin is a multimedia editor at Coda Story.

Get in touch via [email protected]

Masho Lomashvili

Masho Lomashvili is an editorial intern at Coda Story.