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How Middle East is utilizing the opportunities through innovation in technology during COVID-19?

The global community and the governments are learning to cope up with the crisis and are battling the challenges to utilize the technology factors to further life and business.


1. The rise of mobile and VoIP applications


As cities in China were forced into lockdown in January 2020, daily time spent on mobile apps began to rise. There was a sharp increase of average daily hours spent in mobile in China when compared to the average of 2019 and a significant increase in Italy. Calling apps became particularly popular with individuals resorting to videoconferencing to schedule work meetings, home schooling or just to catch up virtually with friends and relatives as they were forced to stay in their homes. Zoom Cloud Meetings have topped download charts across many markets, while Microsoft Teams has seen a phenomenal rise in users in Italy following the outbreak of COVID-19.


These behavioral shifts and the urgent need to enable home schooling and remote working have prompted regulators to remove blockers to the deployment of these solutions, even if temporarily. In Oman, a country known for its reticence to adopt cloud-based solutions, the TRA rapidly moved to lift the restrictions on Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx were also unblocked in Qatar.


UAE


On 14 March, the UAE TRA announced the unblocking of Microsoft Teams and Zoom VoIP applications to enable remote working and home schooling for the duration of the crisis. The easing of restrictions on VoIP was made in collaboration with the two licensed telecommunications providers, Etisalat and Du. Lifting of restrictions was intended to be a temporary measure to help manage the crisis. It does not reflect an intention by the regulator to introduce any permanent changes to the VoIP policy. Despite being a temporary measure, it has helped minimize the disruption to businesses and even created opportunities for some to shift the delivery of their services to online platforms, instead of having to suspend them indefinitely (for e.g. fitness instructors, independent consultants, artists, etc.).


Saudi Arabia


In KSA, the market with respect to VOIP has been open for a while so no changes have been necessary. Its newly established Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) was quick to deploy Video Conferencing Systems to host the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Summit, which brought together G20 leaders to discuss initiatives aimed at uniting efforts to combat the global spread of the pandemic.


2. Data Protection


To help contain the spread of the virus, employers began implementing precautionary measures, such as temperature checks on employees and restrictions on business and personal travel. In normal circumstances, such measures would have likely raised questions around individual liberty and privacy. In light of the exceptional circumstances, a balance has to be struck between an individual’s right to data privacy and the obligation to protect the health and safety of other employees and the public at large. Data protection authorities around the world, particularly in Europe, have been grappling with this issue for a few weeks with many of them issuing guidance notes to help employers make the right decisions when rolling out precautionary measures.


UAE


In the absence of a federal data privacy law in the UAE, employers have a level of discretion to implement the measures they deem necessary to protect their employees. Employers still have to take into consideration general provisions in the penal code and in the Constitution aimed at preserving the dignity and secrecy of an individual’s private life when rolling out these precautionary measures. For example, while an employer could inform employees that a colleague has contracted COVID-19, they may not be able to disclose the employee’s name unless it is necessary to protect other employees who may have been in close contact with that individual.


The DIFC and ADGM are the two free zones with bespoke data protection laws and regulations. The DIFC has yet to issue any guidance on the implication of the COVID-19 crisis on the collection, use and processing of personal data. ADGM issued a guidance note on 22 March which confirms that DP Regulations will not prevent a Data Controller from processing Personal Data in cases of emergency, provided that the Personal Data is processed fairly, lawfully and securely, and it is adequate, relevant and proportionate for the purposes for which it is being processed.


Aside from data protection laws, there are two laws in the UAE that specifically relate to the protection of health data:

  • Dubai Health Care City (DHCC) has a Health Care Data Protection Law that applies to the protection of patient health information. However, this law only applies to entities incorporated in the DHCC. While it protects patient health information from being disclosed to third parties without their consent, such information can still be used if it is "necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to public health or public safety".

  • The Federal Health Data Law, which also prevents the disclosure of health information to third parties absent the individual's prior consent, allows for such disclosure when it is necessary to take a preventive measure or to inspect, control or protect public health.


Saudi Arabia


Although there is no specific data protection legislation in KSA yet, Shari’a principles are relied on to protect an individual’s right to privacy and personal data. The SA Code of Ethics for Healthcare Practitioners also imposes obligations on health practitioners to respect a patient’s secrets and seek their consent prior to any disclosure, unless such disclosure is needed to contain the spread of infectious diseases. In these circumstances, disclosure should be confined to individuals who are at risk of being harmed.


In addition to considerations about the data privacy rights of employees, reports of GPS tracking being used by authorities, for instance, in Singapore and China to monitor the movement of individuals under quarantine and the subsequent public disclosure of the movements of those individuals found to be positive has generated both support and criticism. There are legitimate arguments for the use of such technology to safeguard lives. Criticism is likely to be stronger in those jurisdictions with less developed data privacy regulations and laws.


3. Artificial Intelligence


South Korea was praised for its ability to swiftly contain the virus and its success was in no small part due to technology. In fact, South Korea was able to develop testing kits in a short time thanks to AI. AI tools were also deployed across the country to enable the quick diagnosis of patients, with some algorithms designed to identify abnormal findings on chest x-rays and examine the lung within just three seconds.

In the UAE, Dubai Police have utilized AI solutions to demarcate vehicles that have movement permits or belong to people working within vital sectors, from vehicles of individuals in breach of the lockdown enforced on April 5th.


Etihad Airways has also announced that it will be relying on technology and automation to screen passengers for signs of COVID-19 to limit the potential of transmission among passengers, when it resumes its regular commercial air services.


4. Cyber Security


There was a noticeable spike in corona-virus themed attacks since a pandemic was declared. The World Health Organization (WHO) also warned of a rise in phishing emails appearing to be from the WHO. Increased cyber security threats should prompt organizations to reinforce their information security systems and eventually adopt advanced analytics platforms to proactively identify and resolve exploitable vulnerabilities in their systems.


5. Technology Contracts


Technology suppliers, platforms and licensees in the GCC have been understandably concerned that either they or their counterparties are unable to fulfil obligations, KPI’s or milestones under the commercial arrangements they are party to. The direct implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in the sector have been twofold:

  1. A major disruption to the global tech supply chain across manufacturing, shipping and delivery, particularly for companies with a dependence on China for materials; over 200 of the Fortune Global 500 firms have a presence in Wuhan; and

  2. A highlighting of the need to leverage and adopt technologies such as 5G, smart city solutions, AI and IoT to meet future global challenges e.g. the unprecedented requirement for remote interaction and the use of smart tools to identify virus hotspots. One positive may be the acceleration in the design and adoption of these advanced technologies across global markets.


6. Innovation


Innovation often thrives in times of crisis and should be applauded. For example, food delivery service Meituan Dianping introduced robots in several of its partners' restaurants in China that bring food from kitchens to delivery workers, and to customers waiting for takeout orders.