When Transparency Is A Matter Of Life And Death
from the spread-the-word-not-the-disease dept
Against a background of the leaks about NSA spying, transparency -- or lack of it -- is a hot topic at the moment. But there are situations where it can be even more important than just a matter of enhancing confidence in government actions and acting as a check on them, as this Wired story about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) makes clear:
The virus is new, recorded in humans for the first time in mid-2012. It is dire, having killed more than half of those who contracted it. And it is mysterious, far more so than it should be -- because Saudi Arabia, where the majority of cases have clustered, has been tight-lipped about the disease's spread, responding slowly to requests for information and preventing outside researchers from publishing their findings about the syndrome.
In fact, it's even worse than that. Researchers had hoped one new technique would allow them to track nascent epidemics and pandemics in the face of government reticence to admit there is a problem is to monitor casual online discussions about outbreaks of illness. But even that's failing here:
public-health researchers have believed that Internet chatter -- patterns of online discussion about disease -- would undercut any attempts at secrecy. But they've been disappointed to see that their web-scraping tools have picked up remarkably little from the Middle East: While Saudi residents certainly use the Internet, what they can access is stifled, and what they are willing to say appears muted.
That's a clear demonstration of how lack of transparency, when coupled with pervasive censorship and knock-on self-censorship, can have much wider implications than simply blocking the free flow of information.