Mar 25, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Got some time on your hands? Who doesn't. Why not fill out the census? It's easier than tackling the closet.

Today's Login shouldn't distract from either task. It's 1,242 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Why the U.S. won't deploy high-tech virus trackers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Governments around the world have turned to high-tech solutions like smartphone tracking and Bluetooth bracelets to slow the novel coronavirus' spread. For both practical and cultural reasons, however, the U.S. is unlikely to try such methods.

The big picture: The U.S. plainly needs more tools for slowing the spread of COVID-19. But a lack of testing supplies, the absence of nationwide strategies and policies, an individualistic culture, and concerns over civil liberties all stand in the way of adopting these techniques.

Driving the news:

  • In Taiwan, authorities used a mobile phone-based "virtual fence" to enforce a quarantine by tracking the location of people who have been exposed to the virus.
  • In Singapore, authorities have been tracking the spread of the disease by requiring residents to load their phones with a contact-tracing mobile app that they're now making available to developers worldwide.
  • Hong Kong uses bracelets, tied to smartphones via Bluetooth, to try to keep tabs on some in quarantine and foreigners entering the country.
  • In Thailand, tourists from certain countries were given a mobile phone SIM card with a special app to make health declarations and enable tracking.
  • Israel earlier this month approved monitoring the cell phones of those infected with the virus.

Yes, but: Without widespread testing in the U.S., it's not clear who would be tracked or for what purpose.

  • Plus, the U.S. lacks a coordinated national response to the virus, with much of the effort to "flatten the curve" coming at state and local levels.

Civil liberties advocates argue that invasive uses of technology, once introduced for well-meaning ends, are difficult to roll back and could lead to a more permanent erosion of privacy rights in the U.S.

  • "It's essential that government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are based on the recommendations of public health experts — and vetted by civil liberties and human rights experts," said Fight for the Future's Evan Greer, whose group is calling on governments to avoid turning to mass surveillance to fight the disease. "Real-time location data is incredibly sensitive information that can put people in imminent danger if it's leaked, shared improperly, or abused."

Technology can still play a role in U.S. efforts against the virus.

  • Mobile operators in Italy, Germany and Austria are sharing anonymous aggregated data with health authorities. Facebook has also said it would share some data with researchers, and that could be more palatable in the U.S. than individual tracking. But again, without widespread testing, such data is probably less useful.
  • A consortium of tech companies, national labs and universities are tapping supercomputers to help identify drugs that could be useful in treating COVID-19.
  • In the absence of extensive testing data, companies are also trying to use other types of info. Smart thermometer maker Kinsa has been sharing maps of people's temperatures, while other groups are trying to analyze the limited virus data to see who might be most vulnerable.
  • 3D printing can contribute to providing scarce medical supplies and ventilator parts, with HP and Carbon among those trying to fill the void, along with grassroots efforts.
  • And of course, as we reported yesterday, the internet has proven a vital lifeline for the millions of people who are staying at home in an effort to slow the disease's spread.
2. Report: Facebook weighing India wireless play

Facebook is said to be in talks to buy a 10% stake in Indian telecom operator Reliance Jio, according to the Financial Times.

Why it matters: Facebook has long sought to invest in big markets where internet connectivity is sparse, expensive, or both — figuring that a boost in internet usage will result in more users.

Its last approach, subsidizing free use of Facebook, was poorly received in India. This would appear to be a different means to achieve the same end.

Meanwhile, in other virus news:

  • Facebook warned Tuesday that its advertising revenue is likely to take a hit thanks to the impact of the coronavirus. A company blog post also talked about challenges in meeting a global surge in demand for its services.
  • Bill Gates said in a TED interview that we can't just restart the economy and "ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner."
  • YouTube will limit video quality around the globe for the next month to ease strain on networks.
  • Verizon said that mobile hand-offs — which occur when a phone's data connection moves from one cell site to another as users walk or drive around — are down 27% vs. a typical week, indicating at least some Americans are staying in place.
  • Workers at six Amazon warehouses have tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • The White House is working with Oracle on software to track use of experimental drugs.
  • The bipartisan Senate-White House deal on coronavirus relief would let gig economy workers access unemployment benefits.
3. Where tech is getting masks to donate

U.S. tech firms are donating big supplies of N95 masks, raising questions about why they have them in the first place. It largely comes down to stockpiling for California’s wildfires, Axios’ Kia Kokalitcheva and I report.

Why it matters: Health care professionals need all the masks they can get their hands on (far more than that, really).

In fact, California workplace rules require companies to have a two-week supply for all workers in the event of wildfires.

Yes, but: Not all of the recent donations have come from wildfire reserves.

  • SoftBank told Axios it purchased the 1.4 million N95 masks it is donating in New York.
  • Apple, which the White House announced on Tuesday will donate 9 million such masks, certainly had some on hand in California, but nowhere near that many. It does, however, have a pretty strong supply chain and a knack for getting the components it needs.
4. Pandemic could accelerate automation

An employee at the Technical University of Munich checks a pipetting robot that prepares samples from people with suspected COVID-19. Photo: Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the rise of the robots, according to a Brookings Institution blog post Tuesday, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: A coronavirus-caused recession will likely lead to a spike in automation, meaning some of the jobs lost to the virus will never return, as companies restructure their operations to rely more on machines than people.

Details: Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, says an ongoing trend of companies replacing less-skilled workers with a combination of technology and higher-skilled employees has accelerated under recent downturns. A recession induced by the coronavirus would be no different.

  • Jobs most likely to be affected are those in the food service, manufacturing and transportation/warehousing sectors, with research showing roughly 36 million jobs have a "high" susceptibility to automation.
  • Rust Belt cities — already hit with industrial automation — could face further job loss as automation moves to the service industry.
  • Young workers and Hispanic workers are among those most likely to find their jobs threatened in a recession, because of their overrepresentation in food service, production and construction.
"There's likely going to be no rest [for] the weary if COVID-19 lingers. Along with a public health crisis and epidemic of illness, the virus may well spur a downturn that brings a new spike of automation and lasting changes to an already evolving ... job market."
— Brookings' Mark Muro
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • The International Association of Privacy Professionals added three people to its board of directors: Perkins Coie partner Dominique Shelton Leipzig, Vodafone global privacy officer Mikko Niva and eBay chief privacy officer Anna Zeiter.


6. After you Login

Photo via Twitter

In Germany, mobile phone operators are showing a "stay home" message at the top of smartphone screens whenever someone switches from WiFi to the cellular network.

But, perhaps my favorite stay home message so far comes from IKEA Israel, which even offered step-by-step instructions.

Ina Fried