Big Tech Faces a ‘Big Brother’ Trap On Coronavirus

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Under fire for privacy issues, Silicon Valley faces the question of whether — or how — to use all that user data to fight the pandemic.

Technology companies like Apple hold data that’s a public-health researcher’s dream | David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

As the federal government shifts into an all-hands-on-deck fight to battle coronavirus, President Trump and his White House have increasingly called on tech companies to lend a hand.

The companies are in conversations with government about to leverage their might and reach; the Trump White House held a conference call last week to talk about what they can do to help, from helping analyze scholarly research to pulling down misinformation on the virus.

For the tech giants, this plea represents a huge opportunity to get back in the public’s good graces, as an industry whose image has taken a beating is being asked, even urged, to step up in a moment of national emergency.

But they also have a problem: Arguably the single most powerful tool at their disposal, their growing troves of data on every American user, is exactly the thing their customers have grown worried about. They’re fighting the perception that they’re Big Brother — which, in a pandemic, that’s exactly why they’re useful.

Between Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Amazon and Google, which just bought the activity tracker FitBit, they hold data that’s a public-health researcher’s dream: They know where we are, what we’re searching for, what we’re buying, often who we’re spending time with. With that kind of information, says Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist and founding executive director of the philanthropy Google.org, “you could change the face of public health.”

With the help of those digital signals, researchers could know early on where outbreaks were likely to occur, and where to deploy testing and send eventual vaccines. They could target school closures, get a more accurate read of the mortality rate, and figure out if we’re seeing the virus’s full spread or just the tip of the iceberg.

But for the past few years, Silicon Valley has been trying to dig itself out of a hole precisely on this issue, including over the 2018 Cambridge Analytica debacle, where Facebook made data available to researchers only to find it was sold for political manipulation, and the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations that tech and telecom companies were sharing data with the National Security Agency.

Tech companies, say experts, worry about more than their big-brother image. They’re also concerned that government will overreach, like by asking for more and different data than it needs to meet real national needs. After a call between tech leaders and the White House on Wednesday, sources told YAHOO NEWS that the administration had asked companies to share data to help track the virus, but the White House denied it at the time.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on whether they had received government requests to share data. Google initially did not respond, but after an earlier version of this story posted last night, a spokesman emailed to say the company was “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19,” and the project would “follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

The Washington Post reported Tuesday afternoon that the government is in talks with the tech industry about getting access to aggregated and anonymous mobile phone dataIsrael is in the early stages of a plan to used individual phone-tracking to warn users away from engaging with those affected with COVID-19.

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