Published On: Thu, Apr 9th, 2020

There’s no consensus on technology’s role in the COVID-19 response


As of Friday, I’ll have been self-isolating at home for 30 days. Thanks to quick action on the part of city officials to lock the city down, San Francisco is seeing great success in containing the spread of COVID-19. Within weeks, talk will turn to how we go about re-opening cities to public life — and what role, if any, technology companies should play in the response.

Today — and also tomorrow; this column ends on a cliffhanger! — let’s talk about some of the proposals for using tech to reopen cities.

First, you’re probably wondering when your city will reopen, and how. This talk is a bit premature, particularly outside of California and Washington. But if you’re wondering how public health officials will make that decision, start with this piece in the New York Times by Aaron E. Carroll. He lays out four crucial milestones that each jurisdiction will have to reach:

  • Hospitals must be able to safely accommodate all COVID-19 patients. Supply has to catch up with demand.
  • The country must be able to test everyone who needs testing — which will probably amount to around 750,000 tests a week.
  • The state must be able to monitor confirmed cases and trace the contacts of the people that they may have exposed. This is where tech companies are being asked to play a role.
  • The number of cases needs to fall every day for 14 days.

So imagine the glorious day, hopefully not too many weeks in the future, when all of that is true in the place that you live. What happens next?

The answer is much more complicated than the current state of affairs, which can be summarized in three words (stay at home). Who gets to work outside the home, how and where we test people and monitor new outbreaks, where we send people who may have been exposed, and what technologies we use to make all that happen — it’s all very sketchy.

In Politico, Adam Cancryn outlines one possible Trump Administration response: working with multiple health companies to build a “national coronavirus surveillance system.” Cancryn describes it this way:

The project — based on interviews with seven tech executives, government officials and other people familiar with its contours — would draw on detailed information collected from multiple private-sector databases. It would allow federal officials to continuously track elements like hospitals’ bed availability and the flow of patients into specific emergency rooms across the country — thereby enabling the government to rush resources to parts of the country before they’re hit by a surge of coronavirus cases.

Note that this system could help us determine the first of the four milestones listed above, and not much else. Maybe the project would go further than what’s described here, but a Trump spokesman denied any of it was happening at all. So … we’ll see, I guess.

Over in the European Union, authorities have been working on milestone three: a capacity for monitoring new outbreaks as lockdown restrictions lift. As Stephanie Bodoni and Natalia Drozdiak write in Bloomberg, this may prove challenging for a continent that prides itself on high standards for personal privacy. But the European Commission on Wednesday still issued guidelines for building apps that citizens can use on a voluntary basis to aid in the response. The fact that they are voluntary seems likely to limit their effectiveness, Bloomberg reports:

Virus-tracking apps could help authorities find people who have been exposed to Covid-19 so they can be isolated and may ultimately lead to a way out of the restrictive social-isolation measures that are keeping schools, shops and restaurants closed.

While apps may be more precise than aggregated data in pin-pointing potential contagions, they are being released on a voluntary basis to meet strict EU privacy rules. Researchers say they need to be adopted widely in order for an app to be helpful in tracking the virus, which may prove a challenge if people are wary of providing location information to governments or other organizations running the apps.

But the place you really want to look, if you want to think about how the government and the tech industry could collaborate, is China. Dan Grover, a product designer and entrepreneur who formerly lived in Guangzhou, has an outstanding blog post up that documents how Chinese technology companies responded to the coronavirus crisis and argues that Silicon Valley can do more to help. I strive not to describe too many links in this newsletter as must-reads, but I truly believe that anyone who subscribes would get a lot of of reading Grover’s post.

As someone who knows very little about Chinese government and industry, I had assumed that China’s technological response to COVID-19 was a top-down mandate from Communist Party officials. In fact, as Grover tells it, there was a bottom-up effort from local municipalities and tech companies to devise response efforts that eventually got cobbled together into a national response. He writes:

With waning numbers of new cases outside of heavily-locked-down Hubei, there was mounting desire to return to work in many cities. The Hangzhou munincipal government issued guidelines to companies on how to gradually re-open, with different zones of the city on a schedule.

Unlike other cities passing similar policies at the time, they also established a digital platform for reporting workers’ health and gradually whitelisting more enterprises to re-open. Naturally, the system could only be accessed via Alipay and Dingtalk (Alibaba is based in Hangzhou). Central to the system was the notion of a personal health QR code.

The QR code is scanned before admission into buildings and returns one of three color codes: green for admission, yellow for ordering people to quarantine for seven days, and red for ordering people to quarantine for 14 days. The codes are issued by an algorithm that appears to take into account a person’s self-reported answer on a health questionnaire and the public health conditions of areas they travel to.

It seems unlikely that one of our tech giants would volunteer to whip up an app to display personal health QR codes. Among other things, it’s not clear that the federal government is interested in — or capable of administering — such a system. But as Grover points out, Chinese tech companies have been eager to participate in other ways, placing statistics about new diagnoses in prominent places and emblazoning apps with patriotic messages encouraging national unity. Among other things, he notes, this has probably been good for business. (“Every growth-thirsty product manager in China eager to meet their KPIs, I’m sure, was dying to find a way to shoehorn these stats into their feature to boost engagement.”)

But if you’ve read to this point, you know that messaging can only go so far in helping a given jurisdiction hit those four milestones. What worked for China is a system of quarantine enforcement that may not work in the United States. (It hasn’t always worked in China, either.)

Which brings us back to the question of how we monitor people when cities are ready to begin reopening, and what role tech companies could play in that.

We’ll talk about that here tomorrow.

Pushback

In yesterday’s column I praised WhatsApp for putting additional limits on the forwarding of messages in an effort to curb the spread of misinformation, and I got a couple emails criticizing me for being too easily impressed. Reader Derek Giroulle points out that any individual message can be forwarded to a WhatsApp group, which can contain up to 256 people. The app also has an ephemeral stories feature, called Status, that can also serve as a conduit for misinformation, Giroulle notes.

Elsewhere, misinformation researcher Aviv Ovadya points me to his clever post on how WhatsApp could fight hoaxes on the client side. Ovadya told me he would like to see WhatsApp introduce an intermediate step before forwarding a message, asking something to the effect of: “are you sure that this is true?”

I appreciate the thoughtful criticism. Keep it coming!

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

⬆️ Trending up: Snapchat launched a new augmented reality donation experience to encourage users to contribute to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 relief efforts. It also rolled out three COVID-19 lenses, with tips for staying safe amid the outbreak. The lenses have reached almost 130 million people around the world.

⬆️ Trending up: Zoom now hides Meeting ID numbers from the title bar, meaning if you screenshot your meeting, your ID code won’t be in the shot. It’s a small but important step to stopping unwanted strangers from joining your call.

⬇️ Trending down: Twitter removed a privacy feature that allowed users to stop sharing some private information with advertisers. For most users, that information will now be shared by default and can’t be turned off.

⬇️ Trending down: Almost 60 percent of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic that has been debunked by fact checkers remains on Twitter without any warning label. The record puts the company far behind its competitors.

⬇️ Trending down: Thousands of Instagram accounts are hawking medical face masks that could pose a safety risk. The news comes about a month after Facebook banned ads that sell medical face masks.

Pandemic

Google banned Zoom from employees devices. In an email, it cited Zoom’s “security vulnerabilities” and warned that the app would stop working on employees’ laptops starting this week.

The German foreign ministry also asked employees to stop using Zoom, saying that security and data protection weaknesses made it too risky to use. (Reuters)

Hackers are testing out Zoom’s vulnerabilities in the hopes of selling bugs for thousands of dollars to government agents or other customers. ( Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai / Vice)

Zoom formed a security advisory board, with Facebook’s former head of security Alex Stamos as an outside advisor, to assist with a comprehensive security review of the platform. (Zoom)

Passover and Easter have become Zoom events, as people move to plan digital versions of their favorite family holidays. Remember to disable screen sharing! (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Here’s how to look your best on a video call, from Verge legend Becca Farsace.

Governing officials in the US and UK sent out a list of malicious COVID-19-related websites. They also warned about attacks on remote workers, including dangers to those using Zoom and Microsoft Teams. (Thomas Brewster / Forbes)

Amazon temporarily extended its return windows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you live in the US or Canada, most items ordered between March 1st and April 30th of this year can be returned until May 31st. This gives me crucial time to ponder whether I really need the fine mesh strainer I bought out of boredom. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

Amazon told sellers it plans to pause its in-house shipping service in June. The service was being beta tested in a few cities in the United States. The company didn’t say why it was being suspended, but then the company doesn’t say much of anything these days. (Eugene Kim / Business Insider)

Google’s video chat service Google Meet has been adding 2 million users a day amid the coronavirus pandemic. The uptick underscores how crucial video chatting has become for a world stuck in physical isolation. (Richard Nieva / CNET)

YouTube is struggling to regulate a flood of medical advice from doctors with varying degrees of expertise in the field of infectious disease. The site has to decide how to handle videos from experts on contested medical topics or posts that are popular and useful but also contain seemingly honest mistakes. (Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill makes gig workers, including Uber and Lyft drivers, eligible for unemployment insurance. But the process for actually getting the money isn’t easy. In some cases, drivers will have to apply to state programs, get rejected, and then apply again for the federally funded pandemic assistance. (Aarian Marshall / Wired)

Facebook approved a small number of ads with coronavirus misinformation in them. The news comes after an investigative reporter created several ads with hoaxes and other known falsehoods to test whether the platform is policing misinformation as well as it says. (Kaveh Waddell / Consumer Reports)

Tech companies are scrambling to create digital internship programs as businesses remain shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon is expecting its biggest class of interns yet, but says the vast majority of internships will be virtual. The nice thing about a virtual Amazon internship is that you can cry from home. (Ina Fried / Axios)

Microsoft is planning to make all of its internal and external events digital-only until July 2021 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Warren / The Verge)

Tech workers in Europe have been largely spared from layoffs hitting many tech companies. International employment laws and the potential for government assistance are likely contributing factors. (Cory Weinberg / The Information)

Pro video game streaming might be one of the most pandemic-proof jobs on the market. Streamers are used to spending their days in isolation. Now they have a massive audience to watch them play. (David Segal / The New York Times)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: At least 418,185

Total deaths in the US: At least 14,000

Reported cases in California: 17,605

Reported cases in New York: 149,401

Reported cases in New Jersey: 47,437

Reported cases in Michigan: 18,852

Reported cases in Louisiana: 17,030

Data from The New York Times.

Governing

Despite Facebook and Google’s attempts to track political ads, dark money groups can still exploit loopholes in online ad regulations. A new report tracks one group running attack ads against Bernie Sanders. Here’s Issie Lapowsky from Protocol:

“Whatever Facebook and Google do only applies to Facebook and Google,” Fischer said. “It doesn’t do anything to strengthen transparency on a platform like Hulu or Pandora, which both host a significant number of political ads.”

Even the disclosures that do appear on Facebook and Google don’t always tell the full story. In their research, Fischer and Christ stumbled across another group called United We Succeed, which describes itself as “a campaign in partnership with the Big Tent Project Fund.” That group also purchased nearly $72,000 in anti-Sanders ads on Facebook, bearing similar messages about Sanders pushing for nuclear waste dumps. But the disclaimers on the ads, which read “Paid for by United We Succeed,” give no indication of a connection to Big Tent Project Fund.

Former Hillary Clinton staffers received an invite to a Zoom call titled “Bye, Bye Bernard” to celebrate Bernie Sanders dropping out of the presidential race. The event was then canceled. Our first national Zoom invitation scandal! (Ruby Cramer / BuzzFeeed)

Industry

Amazon gives extremists and neo-Nazis unprecedented access to a mainstream audience through its self-publishing arm. It’s even promoted some of their books. (Ava Kofman, Francis Tseng and Moira Weigel / ProPublica)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Do a puzzle, just like everyone on Instagram is doing.

Marvel at The Verge’s best and worst homemade coronavirus masks.

Watch a free live Radiohead concert at 2PM PT on Thursday on YouTube. The band says it’s the first in a planned series of weekly live shows.

Attend a virtual dinner at the Armenian restaurant Apricot Stone in Philly, where owner Ara Ishkhanian is offering himself as a virtual host, server, and sommelier. The experience can take place over FaceTime, Duo, or Skype. This is beautiful.

Listen to Ts&Zzz, a podcast from reader Scott Elchison that promises to “help you fall asleep by reading the most boring text on the internet; terms of service agreements, terms and conditions and privacy policies.” Goodnight!

Those good tweets …

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and Chinese tech responses to COVID-19: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.





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