Mar 19, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Well, hello there. Don't get up. Really, don't.

Today's Login is a bit longer at 1,540 words, a 6-minute read. But it's not like you had anywhere to go.

1 big thing: Location data's limits as a pandemic remedy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For all the recent talk about using phone location data to track the progress of the coronavirus epidemic, experts say the data is more likely to bolster longer-term research than provide much immediate help, at least in the U.S., Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

Driving the news: A Washington Post report Monday suggested that talks between the federal government and Facebook, Google and other tech companies could harness location data anonymously to combat the virus. But any such efforts would face major technical, practical, legal and ethical hurdles.

The big picture: Disease mapping has long been a fundamental technique of modern public health efforts, and GPS-enabled smartphones potentially give researchers unprecedentedly granular detail.

The catches:

Testing — The U.S. initially failed to test widely for the novel coronavirus, and there are continued test shortages.

  • No amount of location data can make up for missing infection data.
  • Anonymized fever data drawn from an app that has a million smart thermometers in use in the U.S., as the New York Times reports, might prove helpful.

Precision — Today, a strong GPS signal gets you accuracy within five yards.

  • But it's not good enough, as the Washington Post story said, to "track whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak" — at least six feet apart, that is.

Consent — In the U.S., app makers generally must ask users for consent if they want to use location data. But most users checked that box long ago for at least a handful of key services, like Google's and Apple's mapping tools.

  • The apps, in turn, won't hand personalized data over to government unless they receive a court order.
  • Services like Facebook and Google do share some anonymized data with researchers under a variety of different sets of rules.

Other countries, particularly those without strong civil liberties traditions, are taking more aggressive approaches.

  • In China, the powerful machinery of a surveillance state fed by networks of devices and guided by AI algorithms has been turned against the epidemic.
  • In Israel, the cabinet approved emergency powers for the government to use phone data to track people who are infected with the coronavirus.

Another effort in the U.S. is a government project tapping Palantir, the data-mining giant, to model the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal. Other ideas under discussion include efforts to use facial recognition systems to trace individuals who have come into contact with the virus.

Our thought bubble: Today's tech-driven communications networks surely have a role to play in tracking the coronavirus. But other kinds of technology — like testing kits, ventilators, and vaccine research — are what count most in this fight.

2. Apple's quarantine-era product launch

Photo: Apple

Wednesday's launch of the new MacBook Air and iPad Pro is a taste of what's in store for the next little while as companies are forced to launch new gear without the benefit of splashy launch events or in-store displays (except in China, where Apple's stores are re-opening).

Why it matters: While other tech products were launched virtually after the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, Apple's announcement was the first major debut since many Americans began working from home.

Apple used a pair of press releases to announce products including a MacBook Air meant to fix the problem-plagued keyboard featured in recent models, as well as new iPad Pro features that bring the device closer to being a laptop killer. I've got the details for you here.

With no launch event, Apple released a series of promotional videos for the new products.

3. Russia pushes coronavirus misinformation

Russia is already spreading misinformation about the coronavirus throughout the West, according to digital forensics experts and government officials, as Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The most effective misinformation plays into existing fears, especially around health, safety and well-being.

Driving the news: Russia is carrying out a "significant disinformation campaign" to spread confusion and panic in Western nations over the coronavirus, asserts a document that EU officials sent to European lawmakers Monday.

In the U.S. specifically, a top State Department official told Congress in testimony reported by the Washington Post last week that Russia is behind "swarms of online false personas" spreading misinformation about the epidemic on social media.

  • Global Engagement Center coordinator Lea Gabrielle said the "entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play" and that Russia is aiming to "take advantage of a health crisis, where people are terrified worldwide, to try to advance their priorities," per the Post.

And a report from the Digital Forensic Research Lab finds that Russia has been planting narratives that place blame for the coronavirus on the U.S.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have yet to confirm that they have found any coordinated, Russian-backed misinformation efforts around the coronavirus on their platforms.

  • But last week, Facebook and Twitter did say that they had taken down Russian-backed troll accounts targeted at Americans.
  • The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any allegations of coordinated disinformation campaigns.

Be smart: "Russia has a tendency to use news cycle topics as an opportunity to sow disinformation to achieve their geopolitical aims," Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council, told Sara.

  • "Health care is a topic that people relate to viscerally and on an emotional level which makes it a very vulnerable topic to disinformation," he said.

Flashback: Last year, the New York Times reported that RT, the Russia-backed television network based in the U.S., had been peddling unverified stories claiming that 5G wireless technology can be linked to cancer, autism, Alzheimer's and other health problems.

4. DNC works the Zoom room

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, video conference tool Zoom has become the go-to app for bringing home everything from work to school — and now it's being used for political fundraising, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

What's new: On Tuesday, Silicon Valley technologists used Zoom to host the Democratic National Committee's first virtual fundraiser, which featured DNC technology chief Nell Thomas and Deck Technologies founder Max Woods. 

The event was initially planned to be in-person, but like so much else, went virtual, co-host and venture capitalist Roy Bahat tells Axios. 

What they're saying: "We've hosted a lot of fundraisers since 2016, and it was better than a lot of them," says Bahat of Tuesday's video call. "It's way easier to get the expert to you … all the guests could come from wherever." 

  • At its peak, about 75 people were tuned into the event, which featured a presentation from Thomas about the DNC's tech infrastructure. 
  • The hosts posted a link for submitting payments into the Zoom dashboards and directed participants to it. Bahat said that made it much easier to actually collect donations than at in-person events.
  • Bahat hasn't received fundraising results from the DNC yet, but says that with this first Zoom-hosted event, the hosts were more focused on getting every participant to donate than on the total amount. 

The big picture: Campaigns have been increasingly using tech over the years to reach voters and coordinate activities, but the coronavirus pandemic could force fully virtual measures like social distancing to remain in place for months. The presidential election is a little over seven months away.

5. Facebook girds for long-term remote work

Photo: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg told reporters on Wednesday that Facebook plans to pay its contract workers indefinitely, even if they aren't able to carry on their normal duties, as Kyle Daly and I report. That comes as Facebook has directed most of its full-time and contract labor force to work from home to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

What they're saying: "I don't think we see an end to that," CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters Wednesday on giving full pay to its contracted content moderators whose work can't be done remotely.

Yes, but: Facebook relies heavily on contract workers for content moderation.

  • Some of the work that Facebook doesn't want contractors handling remotely, particularly in sensitive areas like suicidal ideations and child exploitation, will be shifted to full-time employees, Zuckerberg said.
  • The company will also rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to detect problematic content.

Separately, Zuckerberg said Facebook is working on a new coronavirus information center that will push reliable information to the top of users' Facebook feeds.

Meanwhile: Twitter also put out new rules on Wednesday aimed at cracking down on coronavirus misinformation. It too is relying more heavily on algorithms for content moderation and warns more rules violations in general could fall through the cracks as it puts its focus on the virus efforts.

  • "While we work to ensure our systems are consistent, they can sometimes lack the context that our teams bring, and this may result in us making mistakes," Twitter said, adding it won't permanently suspend any accounts based solely on determinations from its automated enforcement systems.
6. Take Note

On Tap

  • Microsoft Teams turns three years old this week and the software giant is announcing a host of new features coming this year, including the ability to raise a virtual hand when you want to speak and a feature to block out background noise. As for its virus-fueled growth, the product now has 44 million daily active users, up from 32 million a little over a week ago.
  • The Indigo Girls, who like many bands have had to cancel in-person shows, are doing a free Facebook Live concert from 6–9pm ET.

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7. After you Login

Let's face it: We call could use a little more levity, so here's a couple of gems.

Ina Fried