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Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

“Don’t Be Evil” Partners With “You’re Holding It Wrong” To Tighten The Noose

It was heartening, in a way, to see Apple and Google kiss and make up recently. At least over this: The two agreed to work together on software that will turn both their platforms into coronavirus tracking devices to help fight the pandemic.

A decade gone are the days when Apple founder Steve Jobs promised to kill Android, after Eric Schmidt, who sat on the boards of both Apple and Google, somehow managed to convey the key ideas of Apple’s iOS-based smartphone to Google engineers, who were then able to copy the essential nature of it to create Android, which went on to dominate the smartphone unit market in much the same way that Microsoft usurped the PC market from Apple in the 1990s. To say Jobs was pissed is severe understatement.

But nothing in this alliance is holy, even if the proximal goal is altruistic. As we lock ever further into a total surveillance state, these two firms are doing their part to help keep Big Brother big. For example, you might imagine that there would be an element of opt-in about this rough-and-ready method for determining who’s got the virus, where they’ve been, and whose paths they’ve crossed. But actually, phone carriers already have all this information except the virus part. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile know pretty much exactly where you’ve been and who’s been nearby at any given moment.

All that remains is to connect your identity to your medical condition and cell location over time. In theory, if you’ve tested positive, the hospital or whoever could query an app to look backward at the little worm of your voyage around the map for, say, three weeks, and exactly where you have run into others closely enough to put them at risk. These others could then be quickly identified, and their cell numbers traced back to their identities. One could ping a number without knowing who it was, but there’d be no way of knowing whether they’d seen the message, and it might be difficult to get them to agree to, say, come in and get tested. There’s your opt-in. In any event, depending on the regime, the authorities could knock on doors if necessary to get people to comply with testing (and eventual vaccination).

But what about this: if you’ve tested positive, the hospital could put your status somewhere that’s connected to you, and the app could broadcast your new status and your whereabouts from now on to other phones nearby so people could avoid you. In a place like India, that might get you killed.

Schmidt is long gone from Google’s board. He is nursing his billions while maintaining comfortable advisory positions with Alphabet, Google’s outer shell, and the US Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, which he chairs. He left Apple’s board rather abruptly after Jobs discovered his perfidy. Jobs himself, has been dead for almost a decade.

So, the emotional hatchet is well buried between the two firms, despite their continued commercial rivalry. And although Jobs once let 18 years pass before he cooperated with rivals over a simple corporate LAN standard, his sort of vehemence has been replaced by the cool demeanor of current Apple CEO Tim Cook, whose dealings today are with Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, also more technician than entrepreneur. Both men are anxious to get on with doing business.

This particular business, though, is one we all might be concerned about. As has been well documented, we have donned our chains willingly. We wear our tracking devices, microphones, and cameras pretty much everywhere we go. So, there’s not much privacy left, except that which has been legislated. And you know what that’s worth. The spooks (theirs and ours), who are unhappy about the advanced state of encryption, are rather pleased with the magnificence of today’s time and location data.

While it would be appropriate at this point to wring our hands and moan about the alarming pressure on personal space, the invasion of privacy rights, the siege on individual freedoms, we are thankfully saved, at least for now, by sheer human incompetence, pettiness, rivalry, and cultural fracture. Who, in this environment, is going to put together this massive effort in the tight timeline required for it to be useful? No one that I can see in public life. All the competent people left their leadership posts long ago.

Yes, our bacon may be forked out of the fire by the slim likelihood that the corona-surveillance system will be up and running in the time allotted. That doesn’t protect us in the long term, but it’ll have to do for now.

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