As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, national economies are crumbling under the weight of lockdowns that slow the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives. Capitalism can't wait any longer, and so governments are looking for a way to get people back to working and consuming even if the virus isn't defeated.
To do this, Apple and Google stepped forward Friday with a proposal that is as predictable for the Silicon Valley giants as it is mind-boggling in scope: large-scale passive digital surveillance using every iOS and Android device.
While some applauded the proposal, it reflects a deep imbalance in society that was there before Covid-19: This is only possible for Apple and Google due to their immense corporate power, cultivated over many years, which effectively makes them the only available choice in a dire crisis. Their plan risks further entrenching that influence. And even if the tech giants hold to their promise of disabling the feature once the pandemic ends, this influence is what will stick around long after; not a faded remnant of the pre-pandemic world, but an enlarging feature of post-virus capitalism.
In the absence of a competent government response to the virus, and within a fragile and precarious economic system, politicians seem primed to put their faith in what Google and Apple are proposing because they are proposing something.
"A lot of experts will tell you there's a lot of issues and limitations with false positives and negatives, biases in the data, lack of data, that most policymakers won't understand," said technologist Ashkan Soltani in an interview. "In general there's this tech utopianism or idealism that doesn't pan out even if policymakers hope it does."
The broad strokes of the plan are to update iOS and Android to accommodate a protocol where everybody's phone is constantly tracking everybody else's near them using anonymous Bluetooth identifiers. While many details need to be worked out, health authorities can build their own apps on top of the protocol to collect identifiable information from people (which is a can of worms itself) and integrate official medical diagnoses. It's possible that this kind of digital "contact tracing" could include self-diagnoses, like in the U.K., which might alert people who have been in the proximity of the anonymous ID of someone who has Covid-19 symptoms but who hasn't had a test.
Apple and Google aren't the first entities to propose such a scheme, but their power makes it nearly impossible for anybody but them to do it effectively. Singapore developed its own Bluetooth contact tracing app called TraceTogether and even made its API open source, posting the code to GitHub. As the TraceTogether team wrote in a blog last week, implementing the app on iOS in particular came with numerous difficulties.
"We faced limitations that prevented us from accessing full Bluetooth scanning functionality in the background on iOS devices," the TraceTogether blog states. This negatively affected the user experience and usage, the blog explains, and it was the "very best" the engineers could do within the restrictions.
According to Soltani, Apple and Google's proposal exploits their massive market domination and control over their platforms to bypass these issues and jumpstart adoption.
"With an open source framework, you can't do things like run continuously in the background on Apple. They've disabled that feature," he said. "Surely, you can build an open source solution and try to get all the companies to support it—not even companies, all the developers, CDC, NHS, whoever is developing the apps, to support it. That would be a hard coordination task, and this has the benefit of quickly laying down a protocol that anyone can [use]."
One reason for Apple's approach historically, Soltani pointed out, is that locking down the App Store and iOS generally can help to keep users safe from poorly-coded or privacy-invading apps, whether they're made by governments or random programmers.
This has also had the effect of giving companies greater control over what you can run on your own device, which is why, at least historically, iPhone owners have often jailbroken their devices.
According to Paul-Olivier Dehaye, founder of Swiss non profit PersonalData.IO, Apple and Google's proposal as it stands could further entrench their influence at a critical time. For example, if the system ultimately relies on self-diagnoses that aren't confirmed by a test, it will be open to all sorts of spoofing and trolling intended to mess with it.
"This is a place where there will be all sorts of geopolitical attacks as well: people feeding wrong IDs, spam, or distributed denial-of-service," Dehaye said. "And Google and Apple are going to be in charge of policing this? There is a question mark there. We don't know how it's going to play out. So, that's a worry."
Dehaye explained that there are also open questions about the criteria that the companies would apply to apps from health authorities that they allow on their platforms, and any issues that might arise there. "There's a lot of power there yet to be structured and Apple and Google have the prerogative there. That's something I think people should be very vigilant about," Dehaye said.
Is surveillance for contact tracing, in some form, helpful in a pandemic? Possibly, and possibly not. But Apple and Google's proposal is utterly predictable given that the last decade-plus has been defined by the slow acclimation to constant tracking and surveillance by corporations and the government, for the often interlocking purposes of "economy" and "safety." Now, these trends are coalescing in the form of a big pitch from big tech that comes off a bit like stepping into a spotlight that they set up long ago.
While this is a bit different from Bluetooth proximity tracking now being proposed, before the pandemic, in November 2019, Google was touting how its technology could be used for "tracking pandemics" as well as "people's responses to conflict and natural disasters," among other proposals. The tech giants were self-appointed and primed to step into whatever crisis role presented itself as being potentially helped by a general purpose surveillance platform, which is what all of our cellphones are.
Importantly, without an actual public health response to match, experts worry that a massive surveillance rollout isn't likely to do much to stop the virus.
"Because these systems can lead to false positives, we might fall back to testing, in which case we're still in the bottleneck of standard testing," Soltani said. "My next question is: Why even have these apps at all?"
Without proper testing, without enough protective equipment, and without a social safety net, it is increasingly looking like Americans will be asked to head back to work sooner rather than later, even if it is not completely safe to do so. In the absence of a competent, compassionate government response, what we do have is a massive number of devices that can be turned into a society-wide net of constant checkpoints with the flip of a switch.
Big tech is already making hay during its moment in the sun, while the rest of the world is plunging into darkness. On Tuesday, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during an Economic Club of New York livestream that we should all be "a little grateful" for the efforts of corporations during the crisis.
Whether Apple and Google's proposal takes hold or not, and whether it actually works or not, is beside the point. If not for this tragedy, but for the inevitable next one, tech companies are ready to never let a crisis go to waste.