Overcoming human security challenges in the age of digital governance
“At its best, the digital revolution will empower, connect, inform and save lives. At its worst, it will disempower, disconnect, misinform and cost lives.”- Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Akin to Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), the concept of human security places people at the centre of development. Protecting and empowering lives is the ‘purpose’ and the development efforts become the ‘means’. The focus on people is what sets apart the idea of human security from the notion of national security, which emphasizes protection of states and territories. Human security does not undermine state security but acts as a supplementary force aiding efforts to advance the overall security agenda.
So, where do we stand in terms of human security? A new UNDP report on human security revealed that 6 in 7 people in rich as well as poor countries are plagued with a growing sense of insecurity. And that’s despite years of significant development progress and people living healthier, wealthier, and better lives. This clearly shows that the global development progress does not automatically lead to a greater sense of security. To overcome this staggering statistic and tackle the disconnect between development and perceived security, it is critical to broaden our understanding of both the existing and emerging threats to human security and the different mechanisms on which it operates.
Globally hunger is on the rise, climate change continues to impact the most vulnerable, forcibly displaced people due to conflict has reached a record high, and inequalities across societies are deepening. Besides these threats, it is important for us to identify and prepare for distinct emerging threats, and in particular understand those that are unique to the complexities of the 21st century. The report identified the downside of digital technology as one of the five clusters of threats that have shifted to become more prominent in recent years.
We are witnessing significant technological advances across a range of fields including information communications technology, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. These breakthroughs are already bringing about disruptions and shifts in business, governance and how society functions.
It is no different in Bhutan. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing for highly stringent containment measures, Bhutan saw an acceleration in the adoption of digital technology. From telehealth to telework, virtual courts to online education, and fintech, many large-scale digital innovations were rolled out at lightning speed. The digital infrastructure, digital workforce, and citizen-facing connectivity that enabled these successes are not just useful during the pandemic. These will lay the foundation for digital government for years to come.
Notwithstanding the benefits, digital governance brings with it a daunting range of new security threats undermining the progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and consequently, threatening ‘the right to life, liberty, and security of person’.
Let us discuss some key threats.
Cyber insecurity: Worldwide, cybercrime’s damage in 2021 is estimated at about $6 trillion, up by 600% since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. It involved breaches covering identity theft, account access and financial access to name a few. Bhutan too experienced several cyber-attacks in the recent times leading to major financial and data loss as well as service disruptions. Around 275 cyber threats were resolved from 2016 to 2018 alone. As per the Bhutan Computer Incident Response Team (BtCIRT), the pandemic has led to significant increase in the number of cybercrimes.
Digitally facilitated misinformation: Around 70% of the Bhutanese us social media. Social media has large convening power and opportunities for civic and political engagement and participation, giving voices to the marginalized groups, but it can also amplify threats through misinformation. The growth of fake online news and adverts, is devaluing and delegitimizing experts, formal institutions, and scientific data all of which eventually undermines society’s ability to engage in a rational discourse based on shared facts. And the ongoing pandemic has made this vulnerability highly visible, often causing serious public health risks.
Digital divide: Digital gap can further deepen socio-economic inequality. In addition to the disparity in access (internet/infrastructure), there is also a section of society that lacks the skills (technical competency and information literacy) necessary to reap the benefits of e-services. Typically, senior citizens and low income groups have a slower rate of adoption, with apparent regional gaps across the country. For instance, the prolonged school closures with education moving online revealed inequalities beyond quality increasing their risk of falling behind in education outcomes. This uneven distribution limits government’s ability to ensure e-services are equally accessible and beneficial.
Artificial intelligence–based decision making: While the use of AI significantly increases the speed of strategic decision-making process, there is a danger of overdependence . A study on AI tools indicated the potential for group harms resulting from algorithmic bias. Likewise, AI assisted recruitment system was abandoned because of its bias against women. Another major threat is on the lack of accountability and transparency in how the machines reach decisions.
Moving forward, Bhutan must find ways of capitalizing on the upsides of digital technology while reducing these risks.
Bhutan’s e-governance policy and the National cyber security strategy are steps in this direction, providing the foundational framework to initiatives that encapsulate citizen centricity, service orientation and transparency in shaping the progressive Digital Drukyul Flagship Program. The policies, strategies and plans need to be agile and constantly revisited and updated to fulfil the changing needs in cyberspace. We will have to adopt Harvard Kenndy School’s multi-stakeholder approach to understand the incident response capacities in all sectors and to ensure participation of not only governmental but also non-state technical communities and private sector. Overcoming digital threats also requires international collaboration and cooperation at the technical, policy and law enforcement levels. UNDP’s new Digital Strategy also aids in re-shaping the responses to the emerging security threats related to digital interventions.
Besides, the need to continue efforts in strengthening digital capacities and infrastructure needs, we need to rigorously educate and advocate across all age groups. Social media assisted digital security awareness campaigns might also help expand outreach. It is essential to also develop ethical sensibility while designing digital platforms through the use of tools such as the Danish Design Center’s Digital Ethical Compass. Likewise, Delloite’s Digital Risk Framework provides insights into ways to mitigate and navigate risks in a digital environment.
To help reduce the digital divide, the establishment of digital equity offices at the local governments might offer a model to co-design programs through subsidies and other measures to make broadbands and related devices more affordable for lower-income groups.
Countries like South Korea and Singapore for instance have been able to leapfrog becoming a significant part of the digital innovation hub ecosystem. Bhutan can learn from the experiences of these frontrunners to co-design efforts to minimize or avoid digital governance related human security threats.
Contributed by Tshering Lhamo, Economist and Tshoki Zangmo, Head of exploration, UNDP Bhutan