As the current $2 trillion stimulus plan shows, the coronavirus pandemic has widened the scope of what’s politically feasible in the U.S. In the weeks and months ahead, that might include a significant expansion of public surveillance to track the virus’s spread and lessen the risks of additional COVID-19 outbreaks.
This being 2020, it’s not just the government that has the power to do these things — Google and Apple are stepping in to offer a path forward. While these Silicon Valley giants have both the infrastructure and the expertise to help achieve efficient coronavirus tracking, they also carry their own baggage. To help parse out the utility of this outsourcing of public-health surveillance to tech companies, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway have devoted a segment of their latest Pivot podcast — now a New York Magazine and Intelligencer production — to discussing the need for COVID-19 tracking and the dangers of violating civil liberties during an unprecedented crisis.
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. It is also now on YouTube.
Kara Swisher: We’ve been talking about how privacy might change as the government tries to start tracking the spread of COVID-19. Now Google and Apple are teaming up to build software and smartphones that help track the spread. (By the way, they already have software in smartphones to track you.) The companies will be releasing a new tool that will be built into the operating systems of billions of iPhones and Android phones around the world. Here’s how it will all work:
People who opt in to the tracking system will voluntarily report if they become infected. Once someone reports their information, an app will send anonymous identifiers connected to the device to central computer servers. Other phones will constantly check those servers for the broadcast beacons of devices that have come near them the past 14 days. If there’s a match, the people receive an alert that they likely have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Both Tim Cook, Apple CEO, and Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, tweeted that the tool will have strong privacy protections. Scott, I just want your reaction to this.
Scott Galloway: I’m very much in favor of it. I understand there’s a fear that governments use crises as an opportunity to invade people’s liberties and they never give those liberties back.
But, in general, tracing is incredibly important and we’re supposed to be the most innovative place in the world. We have these unbelievable technologies. Everyone carries a smartphone. We have deep-pocketed, thoughtful, smart companies.
Swisher: What would you think if Facebook and/or Amazon entered into this equation?
Galloway: Facebook is an incredibly corrupt organization with a sociopath running around the world doing tremendous damage. They are on the gold-medal stand, a podium of a total lack of concern for the Commonwealth.
Tim Cook wraps himself in a likable Alabama football jersey in order to continue to violate anti-monopoly laws and put Spotify out of business, but he’s abusing his power. But that’s what a CEO of a capitalist company does.
Google has all kinds of blood on its hands, but its leadership is there, whether it’s CEO Sundar Pinchai or YouTube head Susan Wojcicki, [who] have the skills and the budgets. This is an exceptional time.
Swisher: What if you added Amazon in there? How would you feel about that?
Galloway: I think Amazon deserves credit, and I’ve been very critical of Amazon. I think that we should break their asses up after this is all over. But I have a lot of students working at Amazon and I know personally that they’re working their asses off.
Swisher: Let me just say Google and Apple do have very different ideas around privacy. I think Google asks for more information, even after I turn everything off. Once I turn off Apple, they leave me alone until I come back and change things.
Galloway: Okay, but that’s the inherent trait. Apple has said to rich people that privacy is a luxury. In exchange for buying a $1,500 phone and paying $99 for a power cord that costs us $1.20 to produce in Shenzhen, you get us pulling only 200 data points a day from your iPhone.
Whereas Android has said, “Hey, rest of the world that can’t afford the monthly household income in Turkey for a phone, we’re going to give you a phone for free, but we’re going to molest your privacy.” And the majority of the world is cool with that. I know it has a lot of bad ramifications, so there’s a market for both, but Apple has doubled down on privacy, which unfortunately has become a luxury item of the rich.
Swisher: What do you think about government getting involved? Because I do think what you just said is right. They don’t take back the power once they get it. And let’s just be clear, this is not new. Government has been using these cell phones for decades to track people.
And what about people not consenting? A lot of people who are sick may not consent to saying they’re infected. If you’re worried about insurance companies or anything else, you may not want to report that you’re infected.
Galloway: That’s absolutely right, and you had an insight that stuck with me. You said this all comes back to ensuring people have some baseline level of health coverage so we don’t create bad behaviors like not reporting an infection. If someone’s worried about their health insurance, they may not be as forthcoming as they should be.
But my thesis all along around why the U.S. government has not been more proactive in pushing back on bad actors, specifically Facebook and Google, is the following: The Senate Intelligence Committee has a public hearing and they berate tech CEOs and then they go into their private hearings and they say, “All right, here’s the 2,200 names of people who pose a security threat. You’re going to give us fucking everything on these people, every movement. And then we’re going to go out and we’re going to publicly berate you and flog you but then we’re not going to do shit in exchange for you buttressing our national security and covert spy actions with your incredible data sets.”
Swisher: One hundred percent. That is absolutely true. They’re constantly in talks. I do think sharing also has to happen with China, because with a lot of this information, it is our principal partner going forward. The New York Times had an amazing story this weekend about what happened, how incompetent the White House was. One of the parts that I thought was most interesting was the China hawks versus the people who wanted a trade deal with China. We have to have a good relationship, or some relationship with China, especially around data. We have to because in this case they didn’t report enough. There was hostility. And then there was worry about making them mad. In terms of pandemics, there has to be cooperation with all governments around the world, around this data.
Galloway: I think the Chinese realize that too. Let’s be honest, the China and U.S. brands come out of this crisis with additional core association of corruption and incompetence. The Chinese were not forthcoming about data of actually what was going to happen, which caused a lot more death and disability than needed to happen. And we have more money, we spend more on health care, but we have let more people be infected and die than any other nation. We have been totally incompetent around this. Both nations will have to answer for that. But a pandemic doesn’t really give a shit about your political party or your borders and we have absolutely a mutual shared interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen again. If the British, the Russians, and the Americans can figure out a way to get along in the middle of the 20th century, we can figure out a way to get along with China around pandemics.