The Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be not only a threat to the health of European citizens, but also a threat to economies and to Western democracies. The risks came from a virus which had originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and from the infiltrating soft power of China which originated from the Chinese Communist Party. Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Anna Bonfrisco raised questions to the European Commission regarding Big Data and Artificial intelligence (AI) usage in the fight against Covid-19 and raised concerns of China’s exploitation of the emergency to influence the rule of law in Europe.
In the fight against Covid-19, South Korea adopted a framework of rules and procedures to control the viral pandemic. These were aligned with technological innovations based on Big Data, systems of control based on artificial intelligence and accurate methods of gathering information. The result has been a mortality rate of 0.69 percent. In using this methodology, not only has Korea – unlike China, which has placed a province with a population of more than 60 million people in isolation – not limited freedom of movement: it has also tested hundreds of thousands of people, making it possible to contain the virus within Daegu Metropolitan City.
In March 2020, Italian MEP Anna Bonfrisco sent a parliamentary question to the European Commission requesting answers on its relationship and “organised cooperation with biotechnology firms which use artificial intelligence systems based on Big Data”. Additionally, parliamentarian Bonfrisco asked if the European Commission considers that “China is exploiting the emergency to influence the rule of law in Europe?”
On 31 July 2020, High Representative / Vice-President Josep Borrell responded on behalf of the European Commission. He wrote that “Big data and Artificial Intelligence can offer support to diagnostics, clinical workflows and supply chains. For example, AI-based computerised tomography (CT) image analytics have been employed in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, with the potential to ease the burden on health systems”. He also reported that “on 08 April 2020, the Commission adopted a Recommendation on a common Union toolbox for the use of technology and data to combat and exit from the COVID-19 crisis” and that “the Recommendation was accompanied by Guidance to ensure full data protection and privacy standards of these apps. This was followed by the first iteration of the toolbox on 15 April 2020, focussing as a first priority on a common European approach for the use of mobile contact tracing applications.
High Representative Borrell additionally highlighted that “Member States, with the support of the Commission, are currently working on a common scheme for the use of anonymised and aggregated mobility data of populations to help model the evolution of COVID-19 and inform a coordinated exit strategy. The Recommendation and Guidance are part of a larger support to the digital transformation of health and care, as put forward in the Communication “Shaping Europe’s digital future”, the White Paper on AI and the European data strategy”.
Finally, the Vice-President of the Commission stated that the European Union’s relationship with China presents both opportunities and challenges and that the spread of disinformation and narratives around the coronavirus and the attempts to exert leverage across policy areas is “not unique to our relations with China”. He further concluded that “this is a challenge that the EU is addressing, by monitoring, assessing and reporting on our findings, in order to serve and protect our European citizens, while defending our values and principles” and that “the Commission is working with Member States and international partners on all fronts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak”.
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