Can Big Tech track an epidemic? Could our fascination with the miraculous power of smart-phone data provide technological solutionism? The idea that for every real-world problem, there’s an app-based cure. Can we use it to help to prevent the spread of Covid-19?
Big Tech improving the world?
Big Tech loves to boast of its desire to improve the world. Well, Facebook, Google, Apple et al now have the chance to prove it. Let’s look at evidence from China and South Korea. This shows that tracking of people’s movements and contacts helps to suppress Covid-19. And who better to help with this mass surveillance than the dominant firms of Silicon Valley? Facebook and other Big Tech companies could offer a lot more. In fact, Facebook already has mapping tools. It provides these to nonprofit researchers during health emergencies. Facebook calls these tools Data for Good. They contain a mobility map that shows where aggregated groups of their users are moving within a 600-metre radius. Likewise, there is limit to this data and does not include Facebook profile details. Not does it include specific information about who is infected.
Even so, through many apps, Big Tech have a mass of real-time and detailed data on millions of us. Our phones track geolocation data. Epidemiologists could exploit this to spot trends. Plus they could identify areas at risk. For example, tracking if people are keeping safe distances from one another, staying away from crowds and mass gatherings. They can track what symptoms we’ve Googled and send mobile phone alerts to inform us we’re entering a virus hotspot. Similarly, they could be effective in preventing a second epidemic if the virus dies down but then spikes again.
Big Tech privacy concerns
The downside is, of course, the privacy implications. Surveillance might seem like a clever way to fight the pandemic, but there are consequences with expanded data collection. No one can say for certain that after the crisis has died down, these emergency surveillance tools won’t be co-opted for future Orwellian purposes. For example, the provisions of the Patriot Act have proved inextinguishable two decades after 9/11.
And the other difficulty is that Big Tech is scared about the image problem. It prefers not to reveal how much it knows. And how eager the state is to get hold of that knowledge. Microsoft alone receives 50,000 search warrants annually from governments wanting personal information on its servers. And in this lies the dilemma facing Big Tech. Will it use its vast data power to preserve lives? Or will it sit out the crisis for fear of being seen to propel us deeper into an Orwellian dystopia?
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