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Jakarta Post

COVID-19 exposes vulnerabilities in our cyberspace

  • Beltsazar A. Krisetya

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Jakarta   /   Wed, April 1, 2020   /   11:17 am
COVID-19 exposes vulnerabilities in our cyberspace Firefighters spray disinfectant in the Thamrin business district in Jakarta on Tuesday. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily altered the posture of cyberspace in daily life. As part of preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus, government institutions and private companies are working remotely through video conferences, cloud computing and intranet platforms. Schools are temporarily closed and have resorted to online learning methods.

Currently, cyberspace is a place of refuge from the risk of contagion. However, as we see a temporal surge of user and usage, cyberspace has its own kind of risks that needs to be managed.

First, there is a rise of an “infodemic” – the spread of false information. Social media and messaging platforms have proliferated hundreds of hoaxes on COVID-19, which mostly plays on racial sentiments and gives dubious health advice.

Therefore, it is essential to inoculate the public against infodemics. A model by Brainard and Hunter suggested that, by making it so that at least 20 percent of a population does not believe in false information, the severity of a disease outbreak can be reduced.

In doing so, the national COVID-19 task force recently released a one-stop online portal: covid19.go.id, where the public can access national statistics and counter-narratives on hoaxes.

However, the portal needs to be timelier. It still falls behind kawalcovid19.id, a crowdsourced initiative that updates national statistics in almost real-time. The disease is currently spreading exponentially, and a slight delay of information can alter public perception significantly.

Also, the so-called “hoax-busters” feature is mostly dependent on content provided by the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (MAFINDO), yet another crowdsourced initiative.

The government has had help from crowdsourced initiatives to provide the public with information that they need. However, it needs to step up and be more proactive, prompt and transparent to match the pace of the COVID-19 infodemic from the opposite direction. Otherwise, the public may continue to look for – and be exposed by – information through any means and sources available to them.

Second, there is the cyber-pandemic. Check Point, a cybersecurity company, reported that, since January 2020, more than 4,000 new internet domains related to COVID-19 have been registered, and they are 50 percent more likely to be malicious than other domains.

Most of the COVID-19-related cyberattacks come in the form of phishing, a fraudulent attempt to steal personal information. Recently, emails appeared to have been sent by the World Health Organization with an e-book attachment claimed to contain extensive research on COVID-19. Instead, it loads a trojan that steals passwords, credit card details or employee information, then it sends this information to the perpetrators.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit older generations the hardest, and the cyber-pandemic will be just about the same. Older, working generations are more likely to be “digital immigrants” who are still familiarizing themselves with ICT skills and digitalization during remote working.

The health sector will also be vulnerable because it holds a plethora of valuable and sensitive data. The second-largest hospital in the Czech Republic responsible for running COVID-19 tests suffered an attack, which forced the hospital to temporarily shut down the IT network. In a health system overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak, a ransomware attack that disables a hospital network can tip the system over.

The Indonesian health system should not undervalue the cost of cyber insecurity. Lest we forget, the global WannaCry ransomware rendered patients’ online information inaccessible in Jakarta’s Dharmais and Harapan Kita hospitals in 2017.

Third, there is a digital divide in remote education. Most primary and secondary education pupils are expected to temporarily migrate to “online classrooms”. The Education and Culture Ministry has indeed collaborated with "edutech" start-ups and mobile providers to provide online learning portals and free internet to access to them.

And yet, the geographical disparity problem lingers. An Indonesian Internet Service Providers Association (APJII) survey shows that internet penetration is higher in urban (74.1 percent) than in rural (61.6 percent) areas. Java provinces also have relatively have higher internet penetration.

This puts students from low-income families and rural areas at risk of being left behind because they often do not have the necessary devices or adequate internet bandwidth.

Some classes eventually resorted to using messaging platforms like WhatsApp. However, messaging platforms are synchronous – real-time communication where the learning process is expected to happen simultaneously. This can widen the digital divide for pupils who do not have constant access to the internet and devices.

Worse, in some cases, some teachers only give their students homework and assignments while leaving out the teaching part. This will bring another problem called "the homework gap", where students with limited internet access often have greater difficulty in finishing homework than those with good internet.

The government should pursue further interventions that can enhance the accessibility and affordability of e-learning platforms; or else, e-learning may deepen and reaffirm socioeconomic class disparity.

There are three short-term interventions that can be considered.

First, improve data synchronization and transparency. The one-stop national information portal on COVID-19 is a welcomed improvement. However, it has yet to disclose the anonymized geolocation history of confirmed COVID-19 cases on a national scale. This would have been helpful for the public to trace their movement for possible transmission.

Several provincial governments have taken a further step toward transparency by disclosing such geolocation data, as well as information on demography (age, gender) and geographical distribution. Nonetheless, national aggregation of the currently divergent data can help the public to see the entire picture. Coordination between central and regional data centers is crucial to achieve this.

Second, harmonize, but decentralize cyber resilience guidance among public and technical experts. In the current wave of the cyber-pandemic, there are at least two risk groups: remote workers and health sector cyberinfrastructure. In protecting both risk groups, the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) recently published six pages of guidelines containing user education and cyberinfrastructure preparation for remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Cyber and Crypto Agency (BSSN) can issue a similar guide. For a start, the BSSN’s recently published white paper on health sector cybersecurity can be a point of reference, particularly to safeguard sensitive information on COVID-19 cases in 227 referral hospitals nationwide.

Third, improve e-learning platforms’ affordability and accessibility. Start with focusing on mobile platforms. Indonesia is a mobile-first country. Most people access internet exclusively through mobile phones because data packages are cheaper and 4G coverage is also broader compared to cable and desktop.

Asynchronous platforms, such as messaging boards or forums, are also preferred because they do not require a constant internet connection. Streaming-based e-learning platforms must provide options for users to locally store content. In provinces with low and unstable internet availability, an option to mass-produce learning material via micro-USB sticks can also be considered.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cyberspace substitutes physical space. And so, conditioning a robust cyberspace will incentivize people and organizations to stay at home in an effort to flatten the curve.

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Knowledge manager and researcher at the Department of Politics and Social Change, CSIS Indonesia

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.