The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted two important realities of 21st-century life. Technology is essential to life and work. And trust, while also essential, is a fragile commodity.
Some four billion people – half of the world’s population – are in “lockdown” to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. For many, access to the outside world must be digital. Schools deliver classes online. Employees log into government systems to apply for relief. Businesses sell goods online rather than in person. Families connect via social media – sometimes, tragically, to say a final goodbye.
These connections would not be possible without digital technologies. But the evidence these technologies generate – the records, archives, and data with evidential value – is at risk. For years, records professionals have emphasized the importance of managing digital evidence effectively. Despite the lure of the “paperless office,” though, many organizations have struggled to succeed.
The dependence on technology exposes the other COVID-19 reality: the precariousness of trust. In a time of crisis, people need to trust experts. We rely on government leaders, health professionals, and business leaders to place our interests over their own and to act with integrity. Some leaders are acting honourably; others are not.
The challenge is that the average person cannot necessarily access evidence of actions or decisions. In the pre-computer days, records were certainly hidden or misused, but digital technologies make it much easier to manipulate and mismanage evidence. With only a few clicks on a keyboard, someone can edit records, create fake videos, change statistics, and delete critical proof.
The public needs to be able to trust those in power. That means we must hold them to account. The best way is to demand proof. If a government agrees to spend billions on economic recovery programmes, people need access to expenditure statements. If a health official cites COVID-19 statistics, people need to know the underlying medical reports are accurate. If a business accepts government loans, people need proof the funds went to employees, not shareholders.
Technology is a reality, not a salvation. Trust must be earned, not assumed. Those in power must use technology wisely, not maliciously, and they must ensure the evidence generated, whatever its form, is authentic, accurate, and complete. Accountability and trust depend on proof.
Evidence is the connection between technology and trust. Access to evidence will help us make our way, together, through the COVID-19 crisis – to a safe, healthy new normal.