Europe calls for single app to track coronavirus. Meanwhile America pretends it isn’t trying to build one at all

Plus, what’s big tech doing to help? Not much it seems, Bill Gates excepted


Comment With the rate of deaths from COVID-19 beginning to decline in Europe, the focus has turned to how to manage virus spread once lockdown orders are lifted. The proposed solutions say a lot about the planet's cultures.

In Brussels, EU representatives are hoping to use the European sense of identity to pull together a coordinated plan across its 27 member states, particularly when it comes to reporting symptoms and tracking movement. Several nations have produced smartphone apps for their citizens to download and provide vital information on the situation on the ground but this is the EU and so, of course, the EU has decided that there should be only one app that everyone is obliged to use.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiórowski has recorded a video explaining his logic.

"The EDPS is aware that a number of EU Member States have or are in the process of developing mobile applications that use different approaches to protect public health, involving the processing of personal data in different ways," he said.

"The use of temporary broadcast identifiers and Bluetooth technology for contact tracing seems to be a useful path to achieve privacy and personal data protection effectively. Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a panEuropean model 'COVID-19 mobile application', coordinated at EU level." (PDF transcript here).

It’s a typically bureaucratic response – everything must go through a single point, us – and it appears to have been issued in ignorance of the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project, which has overnight posted its planned scheme on GitHub.

The EU could come up with a data framework and guidelines for sharing that data openly and encourage other organizations and nations to develop their own apps to add to the data pool. That would allow many more people to get involved, help the better apps bubble up to the top, and allow for those who understand cultural and society differences to better target all segments of society.

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But no, this is the EU and everything must be done through centrally. We can confidently predict a terrible, clunky and confusing app that launches late and fails early. And does so long after smaller and poorer nations like India implement apps that accumulate over 20 million users in under a week.

On the plus side, thanks to GDPR and the lengthy privacy debate that Europe has gone through, even the bureaucracies understand the importance of how to deal with data and have a framework for gathering it and then getting rid of the files later, one would hope.

And in the land of the Free™

Meanwhile in the US, the federal government is currently pretending that it isn’t trying to do the exact same thing even as it become clear that is exactly what is planned.

Even though America is one country while the European Union is 27, in some respects it is less united, with each state fiercely defending its independence. At the same time, privacy rules are far less strict, stateside: something that has given corporations like Facebook and Google vast databases of data that the federal government would likely never be able to technically, or especially politically, build without outside help.

And so, faced with the same need to identify and trace COVID-19 cases, the White House is talking to Big Tech in an effort to build a database to help keep the virus under control. But databases are also money in America and US citizens don’t trust government, making the process much more complicated.

The result? What is a pretty obvious public health and public interest plan is referred to, even in sensible, rational publications, as a "national coronavirus surveillance system."

The result of that is that the White House has been forced to deny it is doing what everyone knows it is doing. Add that to partisan issues, the endless desire to personalize issues in America to a single person, and the fact that for some unfathomable reason the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has zero experience in any relevant field, has been put in charge, and you have a disaster in the making.

Asked about the database it is building to track the virus, a White House spokesman said: "This story makes no sense and is completely false. The White House gets many unsolicited random proposals on a variety of topics, but Jared has no knowledge of this proposal or the people mentioned in this article who may have submitted it."

Meanwhile, because there are no good federal privacy laws and Big Tech has made it plain for a decade that will do anything to bulk up its advertising-catnip databases, concern is growing over what will be done with any such data when/if it is compiled.

As just one example, two Democratic Senators – Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) – who often delve into privacy issues, have sent a letter [PDF] to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking about its "COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports" – which will almost certainly form a backdrop to a national database – and noting that they "cannot come at the expense of individuals' personal privacy."

It goes on: "The potential consequences of misusing or inappropriately accessing individuals’ personal information are particularly serious when location data is involved… Access to this type of information can pose risks to both individuals’ civil liberties and their physical safety."

It then provides a series of six questions asking Google about pretty much every aspect of its report including: "Does Google plan to share with any government entities, researchers, or private sector partners any users’ coronavirus-related personal data or pseudonymous information? If so, please describe those plans in detail."

Doctor WHO

Similarly, while the EU is arguing that "coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place," in the US President Trump is vowing to cut funding from the WHO because, he claims, it failed to inform the world about the threat posed by COVID-19 earlier enough.

The US often points to the philanthropy of its billionaires and monster corporations as a solution to societal gaps, so it’s worth taking a long at what’s been happening there too.

It’s been a mixed bag. While nothing at all has been heard of many billionaires – Peter Thiel is rumored to have high-tailed it out of the country on private plane to his New Zealand bolthole – and others have infuriated the common folk, such as music mogul David Geffen who posted a picture of his massive yacht in the Grenadines to show where he was "sheltering at home" – others have stepped up.

Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a short personal video to outline how his company’s enormous resources are being used to produce and ship 20 million masks for health workers. And a number of companies including Intel have signed a pledge to "make our intellectual property available free of charge for use in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and minimizing the impact of the disease" – which sounds on one level like the most unhelpfully corporate thing anyone could possibly do but in litigious America may actually have a direct impact on efforts to take on the virus.

There there is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who has become a master at making it look like he is using his billions to the betterment of society while keeping firm control of every dollar, setting up unusual corporate structures to hold his cash, reaping maximum tax benefits and publicity and making sure it only goes to specific projects.

Hero in a half-shell

So far his coronavirus contribution has been to provide two diagnostic machines for testing possible coronavirus cases in the San Francisco Bay Area. Meanwhile, because of his company’s policy on allowing blatant mistruths to be published on Facebook so long as they are paid for, it is a net positive situation for The Zuck thanks to well-funded misinformation and the promotion of incorrect and occasionally dangerous advice on his social network.

The great Elon Musk, having been forced to shut down his factory under California's lockdown, has bought 1,000 "FDA-approved ventilators" and sent 40 of them to New York City, which promptly explained that they aren’t powerful enough to use on coronavirus patients. In fact they could actually spread the virus further, health officials warned. The machines are used for sleep apnea, not keeping people’s lungs going.

Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite Twitter tech monk Jack Dorsey has said he will put $1bn of his own stock toward fighting COVID-19 and has even, somewhat oddly, published a spreadsheet showing how it’s going to spent over time. So far $100,000 has been given to a food bank. "After we disarm this pandemic, the focus will shift to girls’ health and education, and UBI," he said on Twitter.

We hate to be skeptical but given the fact that there is absolutely no structure around this billion-dollar donation beyond a Google Doc, it doesn’t seem like the most effective way of dealing with a global crisis.

Bill does best

As is usually the case, the world’s richest man (or is that second richest now?) and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has done the best of it, although he has spent years now focused on his Gates Foundation that does, let’s be honest, a lot of really good work on really important issues facing the world.

Gates is basically bank-rolling factories for seven potential COVID-19 coronavirus vaccines, in the hope one or two are eventually viable even if it means blowing billions on the others.

Gates aside, it’s almost as if the billionaire philanthropist argument is a useful but ultimately worthless construct that the super rich can use as a way to explain away why a very, very small number of people should be allowed to hoard vast resources in defiance of every logical argument about efficiency and societal well-being. The one-off $1,200 checks for everyone else in America should be arriving any day soon. ®

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