Hillicon Valley: Digital contact tracing faces roadblocks | NY AG, Zoom reach deal | Uber, Lyft hit hard by pandemic

Hillicon Valley: Digital contact tracing faces roadblocks | NY AG, Zoom reach deal | Uber, Lyft hit hard by pandemic
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DIGITAL CONTACT TRACING IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Technology companies are offering a new tool to countries and states trying to reopen their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic: digital contact tracing applications.


Touted as a way to track cases and isolate carriers quickly through the use of smartphones people already have in their pockets, the technological fix has gained significant attention from governments and private companies alike.

But it's not clear how effective the alternative to traditional one-on-one interview-based contact tracing would be. And it also raises other issues dealing with surveillance.

Tech: Experts warn Bluetooth’s limited range and accuracy may result in false positives.

The technology might show a contact between someone carrying the disease and a second person who is on the other side of a porous wall, Ashkan Soltani, a former adviser to the U.S. chief technology officer, wrote on the Brookings Institute’s TechStream with University of Washington professors Ryan Calo and Carl Bergstrom.

The product lead of TraceTogether, Singapore’s digital contact tracing app, said traditional contact tracing is superior.

“If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, no,” Jason Bay wrote in a blog post.

Buy-in: It’s also unclear whether people would be comfortable with digital contact tracing. Public polling data suggests that Americans are hesitant to download apps from tech companies that would theoretically track who they interact with.


Only 50 percent of Americans who have smartphones capable of running such applications say they would download them, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland survey conducted last month. 

“I don't know that it's a solution that is really going to work for an American citizenry that is already pretty preoccupied about privacy,” Mike Reid, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco who is overseeing the city’s contact tracing efforts, told The Hill in an interview.

Deficits elsewhere: Experts also say that traditional contact tracing must be bolstered for digital contact tracing to be effective.

“Right now our focus needs to be scaling up tried and true person to person contact tracing systems that involve one human being contacting another,” Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Hill in an interview.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. needs 100,000 more public health staffers to make contact tracing effective.

Testing is another problem. Once individuals are notified of potential exposure, the next step in traditional contact tracing is getting a test.

“Long story short,” Reid, who has a background in tracing HIV cases, said, “you can't do contact tracing unless you have enough testing capability to be able to test everybody that you identify.”

Read more.

ZOOM DEAL WITH NY: Video conferencing group Zoom will expand certain privacy and security protections for users as part of an agreement announced Thursday with New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

As part of an agreement, Zoom said it will implement a data security program and conduct risk assessment reviews to check for software vulnerabilities. The company will also enhance the security of user information by expanding encryption protocols, and will enable default passwords for every meeting to control access.

The company will also take steps to stop sharing user data with Facebook — an issue that has put the company in hot water over the past two months — and will investigate any reported misconduct on its platform, such as attacks around race, religion or sexual orientation. No monetary penalties were involved in the agreement.

Most of the changes agreed to by Zoom as part of the agreement in New York are steps the company already initiated in response to a spike in security and privacy concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our lives have inexorably changed over the past two months, and while Zoom has provided an invaluable service, it unacceptably did so without critical security protections,” James said in a statement. “This agreement puts protections in place so that Zoom users have control over their privacy and security, and so that workplaces, schools, religious institutions, and consumers don’t have to worry while participating in a video call.”

Zoom has seen record numbers of users as individuals move online for everything from work meetings to classes to happy hours during the coronavirus pandemic, increasing from 10 million daily participants in December to 300 million daily participants in April. 

Read more.

UBER, LYFT HIT HARD: Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft reported major first quarter losses this week driven by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Both companies revealed that their ride-sharing business revenues fell drastically in March as countries and states worldwide began issuing stay-at-home orders.

Uber said Thursday that while first quarter revenue grew 14 percent compared to last year, losses jumped 190 percent. 

The announcement of the losses comes a day after Uber laid off 3,700 employees in its customer support and recruiting teams.

Khosrowshahi has waived his base salary for the remainder of 2020.

Lyft's first-quarter earnings did not reflect the damage done to the ride sharing industry as fully.


The company's revenue rose 23 percent versus the same period in 2019, while losses were also narrower.

However, Lyft said in an earnings call Wednesday that rides dropped almost 80 percent in late March and are still down 70 percent in May.

If usage remains at similar levels, Lyft predicts second quarter losses could far outpace the first quarter.

“These are the hard truths we’re facing,” CEO Logan Green said Wednesday.

Read more.

FEC NOM. ADVANCES: The Senate Rules Committee on Thursday advanced President TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE’s nominee to serve as a member of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an agency that has been sidelined since August due to a lack of commissioners.

The Senate panel voted along party lines to advance Texas attorney Trey Trainor’s nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. Democrats cited his past views on campaign finance in voicing their opposition.


If the Senate confirms Trainor, who was an adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the FEC will have a quorum, allowing it to resume business. The agency has lacked the required four commissioners needed to vote on proposals ever since former Commissioner Matthew Petersen resigned last year, leaving the agency largely powerless during the run-up to a presidential election.

Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Senate GOP starting to draft next coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Mo.) called Trainor "undoubtedly qualified" and said his confirmation is needed so that the FEC can carry out its duties.

Democrats have adamantly opposed Trainor, arguing that his nomination should have been moved forward alongside a Democratic FEC nominee, as has traditionally occurred.

The FEC currently has one Republican, one Democrat and one independent, with three commissioner vacancies.

Read more.

AMAZON PRESSED ON FIRINGS: A group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Amazon on Thursday questioning it over the firings of four workers who had spoken out about the company's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In order to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistle-blowing, we are requesting information about Amazon’s policies regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination,” reads the letter signed by the nine lawmakers, including frequent critics of the online retail giant Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage Warnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter The Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Sanders calls for social distancing, masks and disinfection on planes as flights operate at full capacity Nina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate MORE (I-Vt.).

Chris Smalls was the first high-profile dismissal during the pandemic. He was fired after organizing a walkout at a Staten Island, N.Y., facility where a worker had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Amazon confirmed this week that another worker at the facility, known as JFK8, died of the disease.

Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, members of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group that protested the company's climate policies, were fired in early April after criticizing warehouse conditions on Twitter.

Bashir Mohammed was fired the same weekend as the two tech designers after organizing workers at a Minnesota warehouse for more rigorous cleaning and safety.

A spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement to The Hill that "[t]hese individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather, for violating—often repeatedly—policies, such as intimidation, physical distancing and more."

Read more.

Lighter click: Here, have this

An op-ed to chew on: What coronavirus reveals about securing encryption backdoors


Uber and Lyft Owe California $413 Million in Unemployment Insurance Taxes, Study Says (Motherboard / Edward Ongweso Jr.)

The Results Are In for the Sharing Economy. They Are Ugly. (New York Times / Kate Conger and Erin Griffith)

No, we don’t use TikTok, congressional staffers say (Roll Call / Kathryn Lyons)

Facebook error caused apps including Spotify and TikTok to crash (Washington Post / Rachel Lerman)