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Tech giants are finding creative ways to use our data to fight the coronavirus

Tech giants are finding creative ways to use our data to fight the coronavirus


Privacy backlash? What privacy backlash?

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A Facebook co-location map for the United States. It could help illustrate the likeliness of the disease to spread.

An unexpected outcome of the current pandemic is that big tech companies, which have spent the past three years on the defensive over their data collection practices, are now promoting them. Over the past four days, Google and Facebook have unveiled new products that aim to improve our understanding of the disease’s spread and help public health organizations and nonprofits that are organizing response efforts. Those products are only made possible by the data we contribute with our smartphones.

The result has been a new kind of competition among the tech giants: who can come up with the most effective use of data to aid in the crisis.

Google’s foray into public health came on Friday with the release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports. I wrote about them for The Verge:

The reports use data from people who have opted in to storing their location history with Google to help illustrate the degree to which people are adhering to government instructions to shelter in place and, where possible, work from home.

“As global communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasing emphasis on public health strategies, like social distancing measures, to slow the rate of transmission,” the company said in a blog post. “In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are — helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.”

Anyone can view the reports, which cover 131 countries to start. In many locations, users can search for more regional data, examining reports for individual states, provinces, and counties. After the user selects a geographic region, Google will generate a PDF with the data it has collected. Google said that it chose PDFs over web pages because they could be more easily downloaded and shared with workers in the field.

Facebook already made similar data available through Data for Good, a program it started in 2017 to find benevolent, non-commercial uses of its data hoard. But that data can only be accessed by approved universities and nonprofit organizations, and so far only about 150 institutions have been admitted into the program. Google’s data, on the other hand, is free for anyone to browse — a move that insulates the company from any blowback over handing data directly to the government, even though the government will be one of the biggest beneficiaries.

On Monday, Facebook moved a step further than Google, announcing a suite of global disease prevention maps as well as a survey tool for identifying coronavirus hotspots. I wrote about that, too:

Facebook is expanding a program that grants researchers access to data about movement patterns in an effort to help improve our understanding of the spread of COVID-19, the company said today. Data for Good, which uses aggregated, anonymized data from Facebook’s apps to inform academic research, will now grant access to three new maps for forecasting the disease’s spread and revealing whether residents of a given region are staying at home.

The company will also prompt Facebook users to participate in a survey from Carnegie Mellon University that asks people to self-report any disease symptoms. The responses, which will be anonymized, could help researchers understand new hotspots as they develop or see where the disease has begun to retreat. Carnegie Mellon will not share any symptom information back to Facebook, the company said. [...]

The tools released Monday include co-location maps, which illustrate the degree to which people who live in different areas are mixing; movement range trends, which show the degree to which people are staying home or going out; and a “social connectedness index,” which shows how likely any two people are to become Facebook friends, a measure of the strength of social ties in a given place. Communities with stronger social ties may recover more quickly than others, said Laura McGorman, policy lead for Data for Good.

One question I’ve had during all this reporting is how effective we can expect any of this to be. It’s clear that the technology we need the most at this time is the kind found in ventilators and testing kits. How helpful can a high-level heat map of human movements really be?

Andrew Schroeder, who runs analytics programs at the humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief, told me that these kinds of maps are already informing disaster response. Before coronavirus researchers began looking at Facebook data last month, he said, it was unclear whether government instructions asking people to stay home were working at all. Thanks to heat maps, Schroeder told me, it’s clear that they’re working well in some places and less so in others.

With that information in hand, public health organizations can consider amplifying stay-at-home messages or modifying them, he said. Meanwhile, researchers can build data around social distancing into their models for the expected path of the disease, hopefully resulting in better predictions.

None of it can make up for the lack of a coordinated federal response to the outbreak. But academics and nonprofits do seem to find it all useful, and I expect that we’ll continue to see tech companies introduce new products along these lines as the crisis continues.

Last summer, as the number of state and federal investigations into the tech giants’ privacy and competition practices spiked, I had a fairly clear idea about how the backlash might end. Tech companies would agree to new limits on their practices for collecting and using the data of their customers. Perhaps they would be forced to spin off a subsidiary or two to limit the consolidation of so much data into the hands of so few companies. Or perhaps a new national privacy law would introduce new safeguards that calmed public opinion.

But now who’s to say they’ll pay any price at all? With each passing week, the tech companies are finding new ways to demonstrate the benefits of their global scale. The backlash is, at the very least, on pause. And the search for new and creative ways to use our collective data is only accelerating.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

⬆️Trending up: Amazon is in the process of distributing masks to its entire operations network, ensuring all workers have the minimum level of protection. About time.

⬆️Trending up: Google is giving $6.5 million in funding to fact-checkers and nonprofits fighting misinformation around the world. The focus is on people combatting misinformation about the novel coronavirus.

⬇️Trending down: Thousands of personal Zoom videos have been left viewable on the open web. The news highlights the privacy risks to millions of Americans as they shift many of their personal interactions to video calls in an age of social distancing.

⬇️Trending down: Facebook’s automated content moderation system threatened to ban people organizing donation campaigns for hand-sewn masks. The company apologized for the mistake.


Amazon has raised wages and added quarantine leave for warehouse workers. But some say they’re still worried about their safety, and don’t think the company is doing enough to help. Karen Weise and Kate Conger talked to more than 30 Amazon warehouse workers and current and former corporate employees at The New York Times:

By mid-March, attendance at Amazon warehouses had fallen as much as 30 percent, according to one corporate employee involved in the response. This week, small groups of employees protested working conditions in Michigan and on Staten Island. New York State and New York City officials also said they were investigating whether Amazon improperly retaliated against a worker it fired who had been involved in the protest. [...]

In a number of cases, employees continued to work after showing symptoms but before their tests came back positive — when they would be eligible for paid leave. One person in New York started having symptoms on March 18 but did not stop working until March 25, when she went into quarantine, the documents show.

Amazon delivery workers were beaten by police in India for violating stay-at-home orders, even though they’re supposed to be exempt. The company was forced to close its warehouses and pause deliveries for a few days to protect its workers. (Priya Anand / The Information)

Chris Smalls, the Amazon warehouse worker who organized the walk out on Staton Island and was subsequently fired, wrote an open letter to Jeff Bezos asking him to protect workers. (Chris Smalls / The Guardian)

Gig workers on Target’s delivery platform, Shipt, are organizing a walkout on Tuesday to protest the lack of safeguards in place to protect them during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the first worker-organized protest against the company. (Lauren Kaori Gurley / Vice)

Nationwide, between March 12th and March 15th, online grocery orders were up by 150 percent over the same time period last year. Customers are now finding it nearly impossible to schedule their grocery deliveries. Certainly I am! (Serena Dai and Erika Adams / Eater)

Zoom meetings are encrypted using an algorithm with serious, well-known weaknesses, and sometimes using keys issued by servers in China, even when meeting participants are all in North America. The news comes from researchers at the University of Toronto. (Micah Lee / The Intercept)

Some school districts around the country have started to ban the use of Zoom due to security concerns. Others are reassessing how to use the video conferencing platform for distance learning. (Valerie Strauss / The Washington Post)

Zoom turned on passwords and waiting rooms for meetings by default in an effort to prevent Zoombombing. The new defaults will add real friction to the process of joining a meeting. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan says he is scrambling to restore the company’s reputation amid mounting privacy concerns and souring usage. The company is working on a series of fixes, like real end-to-end encryption, aimed at addressing these concerns. (Aaron Tilley and  Robert McMillan / The Wall Street Journal)

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, along with a team of scientists, launched a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app. (Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch)

Facebook is installing thousands of Portals in nursing homes in the UK. The goal is to stave off loneliness since visits have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, y’know, never waste a crisis. (Gian Volpicelli / Wired)

YouTube said it will move to reduce the number of conspiracy theory videos linking 5G technology and the coronavirus that it recommends to users. The news comes after four attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours by Britons who believe that cellular networks create viruses. (Alex Hern / The Guardian)

Snap Lab, the hardware team behind Snap Spectacles, has pivoted at least temporarily to produce medical face shields during the coronavirus crisis. The equipment is being donated to ICU staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. (Annlee Ellingson / Los Angeles Business Journal)

This is how coronavirus misinformation spreads, and evades content moderators. The ecosystem of misinformation purveyors is so rich, and mutates so quickly, that moderators are struggling to keep up. (Robert Evans / Bellingcat)

Coronavirus emerged in the middle of a golden age for media manipulation. And with a fast-moving pandemic, when what seems to be true today may be wrong tomorrow, the result could have deadly consequences. (Charlie Warzel / The New York Times)

Governments around the world are calling on the technology industry to help solve some of the major issues associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Startups are stepping up with apps that track coronavirus symptoms and chatbots that answer common questions. (Daphne Leprince-Ringuet / ZDNet)

Dr. Fauci stans have created Facebook fan clubs and TikTok videos in celebration of the scientist leading the Trump administration’s novel coronavirus response. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

Religious leaders across the United States have turned to virtual tools to stream services and offer individual counseling. This distanced worship has allowed clergy to maintain a semblance of community during a despairing and isolated time. (Joseph Bernstein / BuzzFeed)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: At least 357,036

Total deaths in the US: At least 10,000 

Reported cases in California: 15,221

Reported cases in New York: 131,239

Reported cases in New Jersey: 41,090 

Reported cases in Michigan: 15,718

Data from The New York Times.


The next stage of the EU’s antitrust probe into Facebook will look at whether the social media giant is distorting the classified ads business by promoting its free Marketplace to its two billion users. (Javier Espinoza / Financial Times)


TikTok stars aren’t going to Hollywood for film and TV careers. But they’re still getting signed by top Hollywood agents. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

Jane Fonda joined TikTok, and she’s using it to resurrect her famous ’80s home workouts, leotards and all. Great news! (Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz / The Cut)

Will Smith launched a stay-at-home Snapchat series. The series will feature actor hanging out in his garage during the novel coronavirus pandemic and talking to various guests, including his family and Tyra Banks. (Natalie Jarvey / The Hollywood Reporter)

Jaboukie Young-White, the comedian and Daily Show correspondent who’s famous for changing his name and Twitter avatar in order to impersonate people, doesn’t mind getting suspended from Twitter. Which happens ... not infrequently. (Hunter Harris / Vulture)

The CBS series All Rise will produce a “virtual” episode themed on the COVID-19 pandemic. The cast is shooting footage in their homes using VFX to create backgrounds, and will reportedly incorporate both Zoom and FaceTime. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

Phone tracking is having a moment right now, but gay dating app Scruff wants no part of it. The CEO brags about not selling user data. But could it be helpful to academics and nonprofits? (Charles Levinson / Protocol)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Check out Quibi, the well financed new streaming service from Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s free for 90 days. (See also this profile of Meg Whitman by The Verge’s Elizabeth Lopatto.)

Review this ranked list of every episode of the best YouTube show: Bon Appétit: Gourmet Makes. Then watch all the episodes.

Watch the original cast of Hamilton reunite to perform for a 9-year-old girl on Zoom who had tickets to see the show before it got canceled due to the virus.

Watch a strangely soothing Twitch stream of a bicycle messenger navigating the nearly empty streets of Manhattan.

Give yourself a haircut, under the supervision of a virtual barber. A nice way for stylists to make money during this time. Also I am going to have to do this and it’s going to be terrible!

Those good tweets

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