Billionaires are giving away billions in the fight against COVID-19.
On April 2, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced during a “Daily Show” interview that he was selecting the top seven coronavirus vaccine candidates and building manufacturing factories for all of them.
“Even though we’ll end up picking at most two of them,” he told host Trevor Noah, “we’re going to fund factories for all seven, just so that we don’t waste time in serially saying which vaccine works and then building the factory.”
And then on Tuesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promised to donate $1 billion — 28 percent of his personal wealth — to COVID-19 relief efforts. The contribution, he shared in a tweet, would ultimately benefit Twitter “because it’s helping the people we want to serve.”
Many tech companies are helping battle the pandemic in ways that mirror the federal government. Facebook announced a $100 million program to help small businesses affected by COVID-19. Apple has provided 10 million N95 masks to health-care workers across the United States. And Tesla has volunteered to manufacture ventilators out of Model 3 car parts.
But are they doing enough? Even with all their money and power, the coronavirus continues its grim march, with more than 500,000 cases and at least 18,700 dead in this country alone.
In March, Google’s parent company Alphabet launched a coronavirus screening website available only in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has since been extended to online screening and drive-thru testing sites in several parts of California. But it could be months or even years until it’s expanded to the rest of the country.
What’s taking so long? Google didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Shelley Taylor, the founder and CEO of trellyz — the company that created RefAid, an app that connects refugees and aid workers with services nearest them — finds it “pitiful” that Silicon Valley hasn’t done more to use technology to track and screen for the virus.
“Google in particular has more location data probably than any other platform,” she says. “It wouldn’t be difficult at all for them to do this. We have the tools, we could have been doing as good a job as South Korea.”
In South Korea, where coronavirus cases have dropped sharply, websites like Corona 100m and Corona Map warn users with a push notification if they’re within a few hundred feet of somebody infected with the virus.
Why doesn’t the US have something similar yet? We may soon. On Friday, Google and Apple announced that they’re developing a voluntary contact-tracing network using Bluetooth transmissions, built directly into iOS and Android software, to help warn users when they’re near (or have been near) an infection hotspot. It should be available, the announcement promised, “in the coming months.”
Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, was involved in the White House discussions about using smartphone data back in March and tells The Post the goal is “analyzing aggregated data sets” to find out if social distancing interventions are actually working, “when and if they stop working, and how specific policies, like school closures and working from home, impact mobility patterns.”
Buckee used the same techniques in 2012, analyzing data from 15 million cellphones to map the spread of malaria in Kenya. They tracked texts and calls between June 2008 and June 2009 — and discovered that malaria was spreading more regionally than on heavily traveled roads, information that could prove vital during a future malaria outbreak.
We already give all of our data to Facebook and Google anyway … They might as well do something with it that’ll save lives.
But whether it works here depends on whether US citizens are able to accept that kind of close monitoring.
COVID Near You, a collaborative effort between researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and engineers from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet, attempts to track the coronavirus with crowdsourcing, recruiting people across the United States to share their symptoms (or lack of them) as well as anonymous demographic info.
It’s the brainchild of Prem Ramaswami, the head of product at Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. When he and his wife became ill in March, they were unable to get tested for the coronavirus because, according to their doctor, there was no evidence that they’d been in contact with anyone who’d tested positive.
Launched in late March, COVID Near You is the first real attempt to do what’s worked so well in countries like Singapore, where the TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to track those diagnosed with the coronavirus — shared by the Ministry of Health only with user consent — and alerting anyone who might come in close contact.
Kara Sewalk, a project manager for the COVID Near You site, tells The Post their goal is 100,000 users but admits thus far they only have “54,000 reports submitted and over 17,000 users who signed up with their phone number to receive reminders to continually report.”
“The more people join, the stronger the ‘signals’ in the data we gather,” she adds.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks tech companies shouldn’t be providing services usually left to governments.
“They’re not structured to provide services to all citizens,” he says. “Asking Apple to save American lives in a pandemic is like asking the New York Yankees to take responsibility for firefighting in The Bronx.”
Paul Barrett, an NYU professor and Director for the Center for Business and Human Rights, believes that tech companies have only one responsibility to serve the public during any crisis: “To not make a terrible situation even worse.”
In practical terms, he says, that means keeping their sites free of misinformation, conspiracy theories and other harmful content.
“A national emergency is a time to get rid of the BS and provide users, and society at large, with accurate, usable information,” Barrett insists.
At least for now, Big Tech seems to agree. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube (owned by Google) and LinkedIn (owned by Microsoft) released a joint statement on March 16 promising to combat and restrict “misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government health care agencies around the world.”
The results have been mixed. The tech companies have made strides, from YouTube removing videos about false coronavirus cures to Twitter and Facebook launching a COVID-19 “information hub” with resources and reliable news on the pandemic from national health authorities.
Is it working? Mostly.
A “bug in an anti-spam system” (according to a spokesperson) caused Facebook to briefly censor just about every link shared by users, which led to a new wave of conspiracy theories. “[Facebook is] doing what it was designed to do,” one person tweeted. “Silencing facts.”
The hesitance about data gathering, even if it’s in our best interests, is rooted in this same concern about tech companies — and whether they are trustworthy or not.
“We don’t have firewalls in place to prevent the information from being deployed to enforce criminal laws or collect taxes or deport undocumented Americans,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
“There are a lot of risks that come with allowing social media data and other platform data to be harvested by the government.”
Taylor, however, thinks it’s much ado about nothing.
“We already give all of our data to Facebook and Google anyway, and they’re using it however the heck they want,” she says. “They might as well do something with it that’ll save lives.”
A February survey from Seoul National University found that 78.5 percent of South Koreans would rather give up their privacy if it means preventing the spread of COVID-19. Whether Americans feel the same might make all the difference in whether coronavirus tracking apps have a future.
“In London, we lived with CCTV for years and years” — London has around 420,000 closed-circuit surveillance cameras, making it the second-most monitored city in the world after Beijing — “and people would ask me, ‘Doesn’t that bother you? They’re surveying you,’” Taylor says.
“I was like, ‘No, not really. The police always show up if somebody is trying to rob you.’ How is that a bad thing?”
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