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Big Tech isn't going to save us

Big Tech isn't going to save us
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China has required citizens to use a mobile app that color codes their coronavirus contagion risk. South Korea has integrated smartphone location data with credit card purchase and security camera footage to trace the movement of COVID-19 patients. Singapore maintains an open online database on coronavirus patients. 

Seeing the success of digital virus tracking in Asia, many European governments including France and Italy are adopting similar tools to combat the pandemic. The United States government too is talking with Google and Facebook about digital data capture for virus surveillance, while a former NSA chief has joined Amazon’s board of directors.

As COVID-19 rapidly expands our reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies, the backlash that was beginning to build against Big Tech in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the #MeToo movement seems to have waned. 

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Instead of standing accused of spreading misinformation and fake news, profiting from private data, increasing income inequality and reinforcing racist and sexist attitudes, Big Tech is once again promoting itself as the great savior of humanity. From platforms that enable people to work from home, telemedicine and distant learning, to predictive algorithms that facilitate contact tracing and treatment, major tech companies have eagerly come forward with shiny new technosolutions to help countries across the world manage the coronavirus crisis.

But as Big Tech gets bigger, more powerful and profitable, how can we be sure that the technologies used to manage COVID-19 will not also be used to manage and control people in a post-pandemic world? 

In the middle of the pandemic, the benefits of tech are far more obvious than its potential dangers. Yet, as telemedicine, work from home and online education permanently alter the way we live, work and learn, they will also increase our openness to surveillance and availability to data capture, and it won’t be just individual privacy that will be at risk. Vulnerable groups — the poor, ethnic minorities, undocumented immigrants and others caught in the criminal justice system — can become easy targets. Knowing how the crisis of 9/11 and the war on terror was exploited to increase surveillance, it is unlikely the coronavirus crisis will be any different.

The WHO has released guidelines on the ethical use of COVID-19 surveillance tools, urging governments to act transparently, respect privacy, minimize collection of data and restrict its use or sale beyond the pandemic, but the global organization has no effective means to ensure compliance. Academics, lawyers, scientists, engineers and even members of the U.S. Congress have expressed concern in open letters to governments, but the public has been largely left out of these discussions and decisions. 

In the U.S., media coverage of the issue has been mostly confined to press reports in national newspapers and tech magazines. The topic is rarely covered by ratings-driven TV networks obsessed with the political circus surrounding the presidential election. Preoccupied and exhausted by the daily struggle to survive against the onslaught of multiple catastrophes — from COVID-19 and unemployment to race protests and extreme weather —  the public has little bandwidth at present for complex, nuanced debates over the pros and cons of technology. No wonder mask wearing has become, for many, the most visible symbol of government control and individual freedom. 

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Meanwhile, under cover of the pandemic, Big Tech is getting a free pass to cozy up to governments and penetrate deeper into people’s lives.

An open public debate on the post-pandemic role of Big Tech is urgently needed.

Revathi Krishnaswamy is a professor in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at San Jose State University where she leads the Deep Humanities & Arts Initiative to promote responsible tech. She is currently a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.