Another problematic nature of these measures seems to be the role of data-mining corporations in helping governments build the surveillance devices to contain the pandemic. The examples of new partnerships springing up between the authorities and tech companies abound: the National Health Service is now using the services of Palantir, Microsoft and Amazon to track medical staff and resources to coordinate the UK’s coronavirus response; Palantir is helping the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention model the virus outbreak and many other companies that analyse social-media data work with this agency as well as the National Institutes of Health; more recently, as the Wall Street Journal reported, a task force of data-mining start-ups (such as Clearview A.I.) and tech giants (Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon) has been set up and is currently working with the White House to develop a range of tracking and surveillance technologies – everything from geolocation tracking of people through their phones to facial-recognition systems that can analyze photos to determine who might have come into contact with individuals who later tested positive for the virus.
It is likely that data-mining and surveillance companies will sign lucrative contracts with governments in numerous western countries to use surveillance technologies to contain the spread of the pandemic.
This, however, seems to be a rather minor gain compared to another benefit that these tech companies are poised to obtain: a gain in legitimacy, in the further normalization of their existence and their operation based on the gathering and monetization of people’s data. This potential outcome of the pandemic for these companies would significantly outstrip any immediate financial gains that they could obtain from partnering with public authorities in the period of the pandemic.
Indeed, these companies, especially following the Snowden revelations in 2013, and later different scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica data leak in 2018, or the revelations of user privacy violations by using deceptive disclosures and settings by Facebook in 2019 (that cost the social media platform $5 billion in fines), have been under attack from civil society activists, media and academics.
Palantir, for example, has been under fire for its partnership with ICE and its involvement and its role in arrests of the parents of illegal migrant children, as well as for its alleged cooperation with Cambridge Analytica; Clearview A. I., a facial-recognition start-up, recently sparked controversy over its technology capable of scanning photos of individuals all over the Internet that the start-up is has been selling to police departments; the tech giants such as Facebook or Alphabet have been regular targets of various social forces for their (overt and covert) practices all aimed at deepening and broadening the mining of data of individuals.Print