The Daily Beast:
Surveillance vendors are quick to insist on expensive, high-tech “solutions” that aren’t always compatible with privacy or freedom—and often don’t solve the problems we’re facing.
As we begin this bleak pandemic winter facing unfathomable levels of illness and death, here’s a simple warning: Beware of geeks bearing gifts.
Silicon Valley keeps promising that they have the solution to our COVID-19 nightmare, and politicians keep buying. But nine months into this pandemic, their convoluted apps keep proving to be dangerous distractions—wasting time, wasting money, and maybe even getting people killed.
New products claim to do everything from optimizing vaccine distribution to tracing infections to monitoring who has immunity, as tech firms have worked to insert themselves into every facet of the public health fight.
But the reality keeps falling short of the sales pitch, and recent debacles with vaccine priority algorithms and contact tracing apps are a warning for what’s coming next as the tech firms are just getting started. With this godsend of a vaccine comes a renewed push for immunity passports, an unproven technology with a racist history that deserves no place in 21st century health care, and a new wave of surveillance tools to monitor our health data.
The most recent warning about the deadly risks of relying on technology to navigate this pandemic came from the heart of the Silicon Valley: Stanford. Unsparingly, this high-tech innovation hub turned to artificial intelligence to solve the ethical dilemma of how to prioritize vaccine distribution.
But this “algorithmically” optimized approach failed more spectacularly than any human ranking could, as the A.I prioritized senior officials who were working remotely while almost completely excluding the resident physicians who have been treating patients on the front line.
The result was outrage, blood boiling outrage, as residents rallied against administration officials, chanting slogans like “fuck the algorithm.”
Many of those promoting public health technosolutionism are well intentioned, but a few have less charitable motives. For startup surveillance firms and military contractors alike, COVID-19 tracking is big business.
Apple and Google appear genuine in their desire to leverage their devices for public health, though perhaps tinged by a desire for good PR at a time when the companies face historic scrutiny. But their technology is flawed. Like so many of these firms, Google and Apple built their Bluetooth API without first asking public health officials or the public a crucial question: Is this something we want?
For public health officials, the answer is mixed. Some agree that the technology could, theoretically, dampen the spread of COVID-19. But for the public, the answer is much more muddled. Yes, some people have been willing to download the app, but the vast majority have refused, and a clear majority says that they never will.
But lack of usage is just one problem. Even when countries make these apps compulsory, they fail to live up to the hype. That’s because cellphones were never designed to carry out this task. In fact, none of the fancy new tools being marketed for contact tracing are.