“False information online (disinformation and misinformation) are already part of the main cybersecurity issues in this region, with political, financial and social impacts, including elevating racial and religious tensions and public unrest. These issues are further exploited by irresponsible parties for financial or political gains, or simply to create chaos. This is especially during election periods and times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where there has been a rise in “fake news” globally”, writes Dr Moonyati Yatid, a Senior Analyst at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries globally to put forward various measures in a desperate fight to survive the health crisis. In Malaysia, the government has implemented a partial lockdown, also called the Movement Control Order (MCO), starting from the 18th of March 2020, following a sharp rise in the number of cases (Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia 2020). In general, the MCO required citizens to stay-at-home while only limited economic sectors were allowed to stay open.
In this sudden change of situation, a bigger role for technology could be observed. This included the usage of conference calls to carry out formal and social interactions as well as the application of online learning to ensure continuity of students’ education. Even funerals were carried out online during MCO. Further, various digital tools implemented to help Malaysia in combating COVID-19 have been introduced, for instance, Telekom Research and Development’s “EWAR” helps to detect abnormal temperature among crowds (‘TM unveils solution for Covid-19 early detection’ 2020) and HUAWEI CLOUD for CT scans assists in diagnosis in Malaysian hospitals (Henderson 2020). However, while technology has brought many benefits, the abrupt reliance on it has resulted in many issues and concerns. This blog explores the impact of COVID-19 that has exposed the issues of data privacy and security, lack of digital transformation as well as the issue of false information online.
Data Privacy and Security Concerns
Since COVID-19 hit the country, Malaysia has introduced a proliferation of Apps, driven by both federal and state initiatives. On the federal level, the three main Apps are MySejahtera, MyTrace and Gerak Malaysia, and on the state level there’s SELangkah in Selangor and Sarawak also has its own digital surveillance solutions. While MyTrace is mainly for contact tracing, Gerak Malaysia was used mainly for monitoring interstate travel during MCO. As for MySejahtera, when it was first introduced, it was publicised as a health self-assessment app, with few other functions such as the hotspot tracker, updates on COVID-19 cases and also guidelines such as where to get yourself checked if you potentially have the virus. But since June 1st, the app has introduced a new function – Check-In – to assist with contact tracing for businesses, premises, public transport and so on and so forth, to be used after the MCO eased. Since then, MySejahtera has been seen as the one main app that the government is trying to push. Financial incentives from the government have also made the App popular among citizens. According to the Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the app registration became congested when as many as 700,000 registrations were done at once in a minute (‘Mysejahtera mobile app flooded by 700,000 registrations’ 2020). Further, in August 2020, the App was made mandatory for all business premises for the purpose of contact tracing, with exemptions only to premises in rural areas or small towns without stable internet connectivity (‘MySejahtera App a must for all businesses’ 2020).
The options available, as well as the extensive use of the MySejahtera Application, raise questions regarding the collection of personal information as well as its storage. As tracking and surveillance technology appears to be an essential part of managing the pandemic, the question then is how to prevent these data from being exploited. As ‘data is the new oil’, it might be tempting for companies and countries to abuse the data for economic and political gains.
To heighten responsibility and accountability, appropriate legislation and enforcement need to be in place. Unfortunately, Malaysia does not have the best reputation of having data protection and privacy systems in place – in a study by Comparitech in 2019, Malaysia ranked 5th lowest out of the 47 countries assessed (Tang 2020). Further, Malaysia has previously suffered serious data leaks, including patient records of nearly 20,000 Malaysians (Sira 2019) as well as 46.2 million mobile subscribers of Malaysian telcos and mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) This highlights that despite Malaysia’s Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) 2010 in place, severe gaps in data management and protection remain. Furthermore, the PDPA possesses loopholes as it does not protect personal data beyond commercial purposes, does not include the government sector from its scope and does not specifically address online privacy.
Learning from this experience, the government should also provide more transparency for government processing of data, and other mechanisms of these apps to gain more trust from citizens. There can also be platforms for citizens to provide open feedback to improve the application. It is also necessary for data to be retained in a limited timeframe to serve the specific purpose for which it was collected. In a nutshell, fully transparent and accountable privacy-preserving solutions should be embedded by design to balance the benefits and the risks associated with personal data collection, process and sharing.
The Lack of Digital Transformation
When Malaysia was under the MCO, e-commerce was one of those few sectors initially permitted to continue operating, and appears to have flourished as more have turned to the internet and technology to find what they need. During this period, Malaysians were confined in their mobility which only allowed them to perform necessary duties such as buying medical supplies, food and other daily necessities. Hence, many have turned to e-commerce platforms instead.
This clear consumer shift online has resulted in sharp pain for traditional brick-and-mortar stores. On the other hand, businesses that have been leveraging e-commerce are better placed to offset the lost sales from traditional means, as well as swiftly respond to changes in consumer behaviour. Moreover, it is expected that businesses with longer and stronger online presence will be able to adapt to change more rapidly – whether it is appearing on established e-commerce platforms or having the logistical means to get their goods to consumers quickly.
Prior to the pandemic, although there have been many steps taken by the government to assist digital transformation for businesses especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the mood by the supposed receivers paints a sombre picture. Digital adoption, especially among SMEs, has been very slow where companies tend to pursue what is “safe” by following what they know best.
Besides businesses, the lack of digital transformation in the education sector has also exposed vulnerabilities during COVID-19. Although some institutions have implemented partial digital lessons before, the transition has not gone smoothly. Among the biggest challenges were resistance from educators, who are more comfortable in carrying out lessons in traditional ways, as well as the lack of students preferring online learning. Other problems include poor internet access and the lack of devices for e-learning faced by the underprivileged. These situations amplified inequalities in education and implied a significant loss in human capital development.
One of the most important steps to take moving forward is to eliminate cultural and organisational challenges that hinder change at a required pace. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call to many who have refused to go online and are now drastically realising that new opportunities such as those in e-commerce and e-learning will arise. Governments too need to provide sufficient support especially in terms of infrastructure and training programmes for those in need. It has become necessary, more than ever, for people and businesses to evolve and adapt to these new realities.
False Information Online
False information online (disinformation and misinformation) are already part of the main cybersecurity issues in this region, with political, financial and social impacts, including elevating racial and religious tensions and public unrest. These issues are further exploited by irresponsible parties for financial or political gains, or simply to create chaos. This is especially during election periods and times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where there has been a rise in “fake news” globally. Especially in the age of social media, where it has become a primary source of information, the spread of false information has become faster, further and with limited oversight.
In Malaysia, up to 11 June, 266 investigation papers on “fake news” related to Covid-19 have been opened, according to Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (Yiswaree 2020). Moreover, false information circulating on social media also became a catalyst for hate speech towards foreign workers, refugees and immigrants (Ding 2020). Malaysia’s fact-checking website, established under the purview of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), has fact-checked more than 350 COVID-19-related false information between mid-January to mid-June 2020, displaying the severity of the problem (Zainul & Said 2020). During this period, WhatsApp and Facebook were the most popular media through which false information circulated while the most popular type of false information was related to some sort of authority action and community spread in Malaysia (Zainul & Said 2020).
In recent years, several other studies have highlighted this problem. A study by MCMC found that 82.7 percent of respondents trusted health-related information they found online — regardless of the source (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission 2017). Another study revealed that half of Malaysians have believed a story they have then found out is fake. (Ipsos, 2018) Malaysians are increasingly uncertain regarding what information is real or false. This has revealed another layer of vulnerability that adds to the problem of false information online.
In addressing this issue, first and foremost, regulating digital content should involve citizens themselves self-regulating what they publish online. Digital literacy is one of the most important aspects for Malaysians, in order to enable them to distinguish false from real news. Citizens need to learn how to evaluate news sources — not merely accepting at face value everything they read. They also need to be made aware that their inability to identify false news and then blindly spreading the information could further intensify the problem.
There is admittedly no silver bullet to address the issue. Governments globally have looked into various methods such as having robust fact-checking mechanisms, heightening the role of social media companies and updating legislation. In Malaysia, its fact-checking ecosystem relies on Sebenarnya.my, and the recently established Quick Response Team; however, due to their proximity to the authorities, the issues covered, as well as the perceived trustworthiness, are restricted. Hence, having a more robust ecosystem of fact-checkers which include non-governmental bodies should be encouraged. Another important way to combat the issue is to build and sustain the integrity of the local and national media providers to gain the trust of the citizens. Lastly, introducing a new piece of legislation that specifically addresses the issue of false information online, with clear and specific objectives, avoiding indirect censorship, balancing the fundamental freedom of free speech as well as enabling the public to regulate their conduct accordingly, is worth exploring.
Despite those three challenges – privacy and security concerns, the lack of digital transformation and false information online – a comforting prospect is that Covid-19 may serve as a reason for the country to spur its digital agenda. As the pandemic exposed the various issues due to the lack of digital readiness, it has also proved the importance of transforming digitally. This has led to amplified prioritisation of digital adoption and transformation in Malaysia.
Moving forward, governments need to build more transparent and inclusive mechanisms and government systems, enhance legislation as well as heighten public awareness surrounding the issues. Accountability and responsibility in the private sector are also critical, besides being open to new ideas. There is no magical solution to address these issues brought by technological advancement but a collective approach — from an ecosystem of regional and national, involving government ministries and agencies, businesses, educational institutions, technology providers and workers’ groups, is critical.
Bunyan, J 2020, ‘Gerak Malaysia, MySejahtera, MyTrace: Apps to get you through the MCO’, Malay Mail, 5 May 2020.
Henderson, J 2020, ‘Huawei strikes Covid-19 cloud pact with Ministry of Health in Malaysia’. Channel Asia, 11 April 2020.
Yiswaree, P 2020, Ismail Sabri: No new investigation papers on fake Covid-19 news for two weeks. Malay Mail, 11 June 2020.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.