Commentary / World

Tech firms can track your COVID-19 searches

by Elaine Ou

Bloomberg

Two weeks ago, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz received some heckling after posting a “No Handshakes” notice on its front entrance.

Coronavirus cases were still rare outside of China, and it was easy to dismiss the precautions as symptomatic of Silicon Valley’s heightened self-importance. Now that multiple U.S. cities have declared a state of emergency, it may be worth considering the decisions of those who spend their days analyzing massive troves of user data — and considering whether that data might be used to draw any conclusions about the virus now known as COVID-19.

Amazon was one of the first companies to withdraw from last month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, over coronavirus concerns. Amazon ships products to over 100 countries around the world, so it’s not surprising that they would be ahead of the curve in predicting disease outbreaks.

Just follow the flow of face masks and hand sanitizer. According to Amazon price tracking site camelcamelcamel, the prices of Purell hand sanitizer and disposable masks began to rise around the end of January, a reflection of the impact of supply and demand on automated pricing algorithms.

Then there’s Facebook, which tracks the interests, relationships and real-time physical location of 2.4 billion users. (We consented to this when we clicked “Agree” on the terms of service pop-up window.) It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the popularity of Facebook Groups may have given the company some insight on the state of global gatherings. Last week, the company confirmed the cancellation of the annual F8 developers conference, originally scheduled to take place in May in San Jose, California.

Google keeps track of user locations as well as global traffic flows through its mapping service. On top of that, the search engine fields 3.5 billion queries a day, many of which are health-related search requests from consumers seeking medical advice. Searches for pneumonia, for example, reached an all-time high in January of this year. Google’s decision to cancel an internal conference in Las Vegas and move its upcoming Cloud Next event to a virtual gathering may be better-informed than the guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

It’s hard to deny big tech companies the right to apply proprietary data analysis to protect the health of employees and customers, if that’s indeed what’s happening. It’ll be even harder to prevent the government from demanding access to the same information for public health planning. We already saw this happen in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Patriot Act authorized law enforcement and intelligence agencies to engage in mass surveillance. Widespread panic, whether from terrorism or pandemic, provides a handy excuse to erode civil liberties.

What will happen if the government asks mobile phone carriers to share location data? AT&T and Verizon were recently fined for failing to safeguard information about customers’ real-time locations. Both carriers were previously revealed to have assisted the NSA in warrantless wiretapping.

To see how this might play out, look to Asia. Singapore’s Ministry of Health has provided enough information for local citizens to create a website tracking the movement and status of individual cases. Such transparency may be reassuring to the public, but it’s also a potential violation of patient privacy.

In China, mobile phone apps such as AliPay and WeChat are used by the government to track people’s interactions and perform contact tracing. China has accomplished impressive containment measures, but few Americans aspire to turn their country into China.

Mass surveillance, of course, is not the only solution. Genomic epidemiology, which examines how viruses mutate and accumulate changes during the course of transmission, may be a decent predictor of disease spread. Better distribution of test kits will certainly fill information gaps and help the public manage disease risk.

So far the CDC has been remarkably inadequate on COVID-19 testing, forcing employers into a collective action problem — no one wants to be the first to scale back business interests. Several of the biggest U.S. banks have restricted nonessential international travel. In San Francisco, Square, Twitter, Stripe and Coinbase have all urged employees to work from home. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to consider following their lead.

Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg columnist.

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