Surveilled #69–what happened to contact tracing?
One Big Story: what happened to contact tracing?
Nearly a year ago, I wrote an opinion piece with the title “Does Big Tech hold a key to restarting the economy?” In the first few weeks of the lockdown, amidst all the bewilderment, our collective hopes alighted on the devices in our pocket. We could summon a car at the tap of a button and chase virtual Pokemon characters around our garden, so surely the combination of always-on location tracking, big data and AI would offer a way to get the pandemic under control and let life resume.
If this was Big Tech’s opportunity to redeem itself after mounting disquiet about privacy invasion and society-destroying engagement algorithms, one year later we can only conclude they failed to take it. The only large-scale contact tracing success I’m aware of is in South Korea, and even then it was done mostly the old-fashioned way, by scrutinising credit card receipts and calling people on the phone. The rest of us have gone through successive lockdowns of varying length and strictness, with mounting personal and economic consequences.
That is not to say technology as a whole failed us. The breathtaking speed at which the vaccines were developed is an amazing success story of technological innovation, albeit in biology and medicine, instead of information–to the extent that they can still be neatly separated, that is. The forced adoption of remote working has limited the economic damage, and will hopefully have laid the foundation for a more flexible approach to work in the future. And on the more mundane end, ecommerce and, yes, the ability to have food delivered at home through an app has made lockdowns somewhat more bearable for many.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we fell far short of what could have been a watershed moment. It’s not because the technological challenges were too difficult. Apple and Google released exposure notification and contact tracing tools months after the first lockdowns. Rather, the issue was one of adoption, both by the public at large and by the authorities. The latter couldn’t cope on an organisational level with the speed and cooperation that would have been required for success, in particular because of fragmented decision-making between government departments or local and national levels. As to the public, their hesitation in adoption could well be traced back to the unflattering revelations of ad-tracking and algorithmic manipulation, leaving Big Tech devoid of credibility at the time when they needed it most.
This observation serves as a reminder that by far the most challenging part of technology adoption is not the technical challenges, but people and culture. By extension, trust in governments and companies matters greatly, and by their dubious behaviour, companies in particular have significantly eroded that trust. On the other hand, as we enter an age of uncertainty likely punctuated by virus mutations and vaccine booster shots, it appears contact tracing still has value to offer. Let’s therefore hope that Big Tech has learned the lessons of this failure, and will work to reestablish the public’s trust. We still need all the tools we can get in the fight against this pandemic.
Facebook now allows users in Myanmar to lock their profiles–This prevents other users from finding out details about them by browsing their past posts and pictures. A good move, and interestingly one that recognises the need for privacy in some contexts, which goes against the company’s long standing ethos. Arguably they should enable this feature for all users. Read (Facebook)
The US’ cyber security agency is underfunded and struggling to cope with recent incidents–Playing defence in this game is exponentially more difficult than offence, and the SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange hacks were massive, so it’s understandable the agency is overstretched. It looks like a major mindset shift is required to give cybersecurity the attention it's due, especially compared to other defence spending in the US. Read (Politico)
Case in point, a major provider of Wifi routers and other internet-connected gadgets suffered a “catastrophic” breach, and then tried to cover up the extent of it. Read (Krebs on Security)
Academics find Android phones send back 20x more data to Google than iPhones to Apple–This says something either about the volume of data Google needs for their business or the efficiency of their software. Read (The Record)
The next smartphone in Google’s Pixel line is rumoured to run on Google’s own chip–Related to the above, this may of course enable Google to achieve better synergies between software and hardware, but Google’s track record on hardware is spotty at best (the Pixel line itself being a prime example), so it will be interesting to track their execution on this. Read (The Verge)
iPhones are generally secure and encrypted, but there are a few weaknesses to be aware of–After unlocking an iPhone the first time (after switching it on, for example), some of the encryption keys are kept in memory, so an attacker could exploit a vulnerability to access the file system, find those encryption keys and decrypt some of the files. It’s not clear whether “emergency locking” the phone–invoking the emergency call feature also disables Touch ID or Face ID–removes the keys from memory or not, would be good to know this. Read (Twitter)
China-based genealogy companies are strengthening ties with the Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia–In some cases, people of Chinese descent have been forced to distance themselves from their heritage, and are now rediscovering it through these services. Read (Rest of World)
Build up your career as a VC intellectual from first principles using this handy guide. Now you know what my aim in life is. Read (The Baffler)