The pandemic is highlighting the privacy risks of public health

March 30, 2020, 2:47 PM UTC

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which, if your childhood civics lessons are hazy, entailed temporarily enabling the government to imprison suspected criminals without charging them. I recall being taught Lincoln had acted wisely under dire circumstances. In the dark days after 9/11, when George W. Bush’s government hit pause on various civil liberties to pursue terrorists, critics cast doubt on Lincoln, and Bush, for overreacting and using the crisis an excuse to grab power.

The technology industry is about to be thrust into the middle of the great civil liberties debate of our day: the pandemic-provoked tension between privacy and public health. In a nutshell, everything from cellphone location data to facial recognition to compulsory geolocation apps can be used in various ways to combat the plague. But each represents in some fashion a threat to consumer privacy far greater than the now-quaint debates of the past few years over election meddling and other democracy-endangering nefariousness.

In the way our news cycle flows from Epidemiology 101 to ventilator manufacturing to economic tradeoffs, privacy is about to be all the rage. Fortune’s David Meyer got ahead of the curve last week by comprehensively explaining how different jurisdictions are approaching the issue. Academics weighed in over the weekend in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalThe Economist opined that “rules with sunset clauses and scrutiny built in can help stop” government overreach. 

It’s worth reminding ourselves—and ambitious tech companies—that America’s sixteenth president eventually re-established the constitutional right he suspended. It’s a lesson that plague fighters, who should be given every possible weapon, will need to remember.


Have you been confused between Zoom Video Communications, which has brought Brady Brunch-style calls into homes and offices everywhere, and Zoom Technologies, a tiny Chinese distributor of communications equipment? If so, you’re not alone. The latter’s stock has traded wildly alongside the phenomenal rise of the former’s widespread adoption. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has put an end to that by suspending trading in Zoom Technologies. So much for rational markets. 

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Jonathan Vanian.


Is this needed or is this “covidwashing?” Government officials are now collecting cellphone location data gleaned from the mobile advertising industry to create an online portal that could help authorities track and manage the spread of the coronavirus, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed sources. Although the location data has been anonymized, the report cited privacy advocates who are worried that the location-data industry was "‘covidwashing’ what are generally privacy-invading products.”

Big tech lends a hand to the U.K. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service is working with Microsoft, Google, Palantir, and London-based Faculty AI to create a large data repository to help authorities manage the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon will also be contributing cloud computing resources the project, the BBC reported. Digital rights advocates are concerned about the data-collection project, the report said, but the NHS said that once the health crisis alleviates, “data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners.”

The potential downsides of the Internet’s makeover. The Chinese government, along with telecom giant Huawei and other Chinese companies, has shown a proposal to the United Nations for a new Internet standard called “New IP,” intended to spur the development of self-driving cars and other cutting-edge tech, The Financial Times reported. Because the proposed technology standard would vastly reshape the Internet, some Western governments including the U.S. are worried that it “would splinter the global internet and give state-run internet service providers granular control over citizens’ internet use.”

Lend some tech support to the elderly. Some older citizens are struggling to adapt to the technological demands brought on by the coronavirus, such as using video-conferencing tools to keep in contact with loved ones, The New York Times reported. The article quoted Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who said, “If you have an elderly neighbor or family member who might have trouble with their laptop or their phone for this purpose, make yourself available to help.”


China has created a large propaganda machine via thousands of fake Twitter accounts and other activities on the social messaging service, a ProPublica investigation found. The goal is for the fake accounts to amplify certain storylines favorable to the Chinese government, with the coronavirus pandemic as one such exploited topic.

ProPublica’s research tracked how the government-linked influence accounts that had targeted political dissidents and the Hong Kong protests turned their focus to the coronavirus outbreak. During the height of the epidemic in China, many of them became cheerleaders for the government, calling on citizens to unite in support of efforts to fight the epidemic and urging them to “dispel online rumors.”

With the epidemic spreading across the world, these accounts have sought to promote the Chinese government’s image abroad and shore up its support at home. One typical recent tweet in Chinese proclaimed: “We were not scared during the outbreak because our country was our rearguard. Many disease-fighting warriors were thrust to the front lines. Even more volunteers helped in seemingly trivial yet important ways.”

 Another post in English trumpeted aid the Chinese government recently provided to Italy. It came from the Twitter handle @RNA_Chinese, an account that appears to have been an attempt to fool the casual reader into believing it was coming from the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia (@RFA_Chinese).


How re-commerce players like Poshmark and eBay are adapting to the coronavirus By Phil Wahba

Apple releases COVID-19 screening app, website By Chris Morris

Instacart workers plan a big nationwide strike on Monday for coronavirus protection By Danielle Abril

Crowdsourcing vs. coronavirus: Inside the global push to 3D-print masks and ventilator parts By Alyssa Newcomb

Apple focuses on what’s next amid coronavirus outbreak By Don Reisinger

Fujifilm antiviral drug emerges as a promising underdog in the coronavirus treatment race By Naomi Xu Elegant


If being isolated at home has forced you to start cooking after years of eating out, celebrity chef and “barefoot contessa” Ina Garten is here to help. The endearing cook has been posting numerous food-preparation-and-storage tips via her Instagram account that should come in handy to even those who have forgotten how to make PB&J sandwiches. Her posts include nifty tips like letting food cool to room temperature before packing it in containers, labeling those containers prior to freezing them, and making sure you “defrost food in the fridge overnight rather than on the counter.”  

Jonathan Vanian


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