Global coronavirus emergency shines bright light on collective poor assumptions, bad decisions, professor says

Our infrastructure — medical, physical, educational, technological — is much more fragile than many people realized before our current global emergency. There has been an unfortunate attitude, though, that technological solutions will always come to save the day without considering that the solutions we choose have the capacity to both help and hurt.

The world has benefited a long time from its information technology (IT) systems “just working,” but now we see — as we have in the past — that our reliance on these systems assumes a resilience that is simply not there. Forty-year-old mainframes are still processing unemployment claims. That was good enough for a while — now these systems are failing under the pressure of increased demand. Kids might get internet access at the library if it is too expensive or too slow at home. That was good enough for a while — now the kids are supposed to stay at home and use the internet but don’t have it. We used to sporadically use video chat. That was good enough for a while — now racists and trolls exploit the inadequate video chat platforms that have become the office water cooler, boardroom, State House and classroom. 

Dr. Jeremy Hansen

Our systems are unraveling, and though there are certainly technical constraints involved, it is largely because of the lack of political will to properly fund and plan our infrastructure. The global emergency we find ourselves facing shines a bright light into those threadbare spots where we made poor assumptions or bad decisions. These holes become weights, requiring far more work now and in the future than if they had been dealt with correctly earlier.

Organizations typically underfund and overestimate their IT departments, seeing them simultaneously as a huge cost center to be minimized and yet the solution to nearly every problem. Randall Munroe described software engineering this way in one of his insightful webcomics: “I don't quite know how to put this, but our entire field is bad at what we do, and if you rely on us, everyone will die.” Now, he’s probably overstating our technological incompetence, but it is true enough that I make it a point to ask my students to consider, “What could possibly go wrong?” whenever considering a technological solution. We need to continue asking ourselves that question.

While I could expand this into a broader diatribe about technology and society, which might include, for example, an exploration about why high-speed internet access ought to be a human right and universally available, as the United Nations found back in 2011. With my word limit, though, I will stick to privacy, for which (like universal internet access, health care and our response to the climate emergency) there are clear best practices that the U.S. has almost universally failed to adopt.

Let me step back for a bit.

The curve flattens!

As growth in the number of COVID-19 cases stalls (“the curve flattens!”), there will be an increasing emphasis on contact tracing, which involves building a list of people who may have come in contact with an infected person, so that those people may be quarantined or otherwise monitored for infection themselves. This has typically been accomplished with dedicated personnel who interview infected patients, but the process is time-consuming and subject to the patients’ memories of everyone they may have interacted with over the preceding week or so. Done well, this dramatically decreases the spread of disease by reducing the chance that an infected but asymptomatic person infects others. So this system, while effective, is expensive and not perfect.

Our systems are unraveling, and though there are certainly technical constraints involved, it is largely because of the lack of political will to properly fund and plan our infrastructure.

Technology to the rescue again to make it less expensive and better! The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed an app to do contact tracing. Apple and Google are working together (gasp!) on one of their own. On your phone, these software solutions record every other phone (and consequently the owner) that comes within close proximity of your phone, thereby building an accurate record of potentially infected people should you become infected. What could go wrong?

When these apps collect data — which they must — who owns it? Who gets a copy of it? How long is it retained? What secondary use might someone find for the data? Never mind that many people nowadays have become insensitive to the demands of apps for their personal data — in the U.S., we have few privacy protections that would prevent that data from being collected for borderline-authoritarian purposes.

Observing Europe

While Europe leads the world with legal privacy protections, a potentially disastrous project being rolled out called the “Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing” system is a leap in the wrong direction. Many technological systems have unforeseen consequences, but as a recent study found, the data collection required by this particular solution is perfectly foreseen to be on a path to violate privacy in several ways. Some researchers did their due diligence to sound the alarm, suggesting in part that a decentralized solution that left the data in the hands of individual users would be better than one that centralizes that data in the hands of a national health service.

Thankfully, our domestic solutions do not seem to have the same issue, but it is conceivable that they could be modified later to collect more data than initially expected. Should that happen, it may not even be possible for us to tell before it is too late. It is clearly important to control the spread of the virus, and I acknowledge that a temporary infringement of privacy can be acceptable. However, we must have a mechanism to restore those privacy rights after the state of emergency is over.

As we move forward with solutions in the current crisis, we must still consider the ramifications of those decisions on our future selves and have open and public discussions like those surrounding contact tracing software in Europe. The decisions we make in the heat of the emergency should both solve the problems now and help us be more resilient in the future. We may not be able to do that, though, if we don’t ask, “What could go wrong?”

Dr. Jeremy Hansen is an associate professor of computer science at Norwich University. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives International 4.0 license.


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