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A ‘digital ceasefire’ is unrealistic during the pandemic

April 15, 2020, 12:59 PM UTC

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The United Nations Under-Secretary General, Fabrizio Hochschild, is calling for a “digital ceasefire” during the coronavirus pandemic.

He writes for Vox, “How can we ask our health care workers…to continue containing the crisis while questioning whether vital equipment may be affected or shut down by a digital attack?”

Cybercriminals and malicious hackers are busier than ever. They’re springing nefarious schemes to turn a profit or spread lies at others’ expense. The World Health Organization is under unprecedented siege. China, Russia, and others are peddling disinformation of all sorts. I even received multiple frantic notes from readers targeted by a lately resurrected blackmail scam this week. (My advice remains the same: The scammers are bluffing; don’t pay them.)

Hochschild’s call to disarm builds on a similar plea issued last month by UN Secretary General António Guterres. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” Guterres, whom Hochschild advises on matters of digital cooperation, said during a virtual press conference. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

The world is asking much of its frontline defenders in healthcare these days. It is a shame they must contend with disruptive threats like cyberattacks when so many lives are on the line. Yet, as much as I support Hochschild’s plea, it seems terribly unrealistic. No henchmen of adversarial intelligence services or money-grubbing fraudsters are going to abide by such a magnanimous international accord—even if governments or corporations pay it lip service.

I have more faith in grassroots “white hat” hacker coalitions that have coalesced recently to take matters into their own hands. We ought to spend less time on empty words and more time preparing for the worst.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

Business is slow. Even for cryptocurrency scammers. A new report out of Chainalysis, a cryptocurrency tracking firm, found that Bitcoin investment scams and Ponzi schemes are netting a third less revenue than usual amid the pandemic. Mostly, this is due to the price of Bitcoin having plunged since March. Meanwhile, dark web forums are offering discounts on hacking, spamming and other cybercriminal tools, presumably since their clientele's finances are hurting.

Lessened intelligence. The coronavirus pandemic appears to be affecting national security investigations. A top Justice Department official told the Wall Street Journal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has failed as many as 10 times to obtain wire taps and business record requests used in terrorism and espionage investigations since the controversial, decades-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expired on March 15. A report out of the Government Accountability Office also found that the Pentagon is failing to step up its cybersecurity defenses.

I'm the map, I'm the map. Apple released a tool to show how well people are social distancing, using data it collects from Apple Maps via people's iPhones. The graphs, useful for epidemiologists and government officials, follow the roll-out of a similar tool from Google. The smartphone makers are now working on "contact tracing" technology in a way that, everyone hopes, will preserve people's privacy. Questions remain about how successful their efforts will be.

By the numbers. Aiming to keep its travel-dependent business afloat, Airbnb says it has secured an $1 billion loan to be repaid over five years at 7.5% interest. Video streaming service Disney Plus has attracted 50 million subscribers in a mere five months—nearly a third of the reach of its more than two-decades-old rival Netflix. Facebook and Google are likely to face their first advertising revenue declines for the first time ever. And Amazon is riding high once again.

"We're breaking up."

ACCESS GRANTED

We're headed for the cyberpunk dystopia Philip K. Dick warned about. So argues defense tech reporter Kelsey Atherton for Slate. Decades of neoliberal policies have hollowed out the state and empowered corporations, he says, leading to vast inequality and "plutocratic insurgency," as one historian puts it to him. The pandemic, too, could siphon federal resources, eroding government and furthering the march of the private sector.

Where is the president in Blade Runner?

Beneath the 1982 neo-noir’s trappings of genetically engineered human automatons is a story about corporate power over and indifference to life, alienation in the face of wealthy indifference to the plight of workers. Replace the Tyrell Corporation with Amazon and reframe the replicants as “essential services,” and suddenly you have a world of workers terrified that their jobs are inherently a death sentence—moving straight from fiction to reality.

FORTUNE RECON

The coronavirus pandemic may be a turning point for responsible business by Paul Polman

Peacock’s early preview kicks off Wednesday, with the national launch still on track for July by Radhika Marya

Why Intelsat’s 5G dreams are crashing to Earth by Aaron Pressman

People are paying real money to get into virtual Zoom nightclubs by Michelle Lhooq

Big Tech’s coronavirus “contact tracing” apps will only work if users buy in by Clay Chandler

Why artificial intelligence is so important in the coronavirus era by Jonathan Vanian

Amazon stock gets coronavirus boost to return to record high by Ryan Vlastelica

Alphabet’s Verily coronavirus testing efforts still relatively small one month later by Danielle Abril

ONE MORE THING

While many of us are hunkered down in quarantine, let us take a moment to be grateful that we have not been exiled to Arrakis, the dusty desert planet in Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic Dune. The first film stills from the upcoming book-inspired movie were just published by Vanity Fair, and they look starkly gorgeous.

Let's hope the adaptation is as spicy as fans crave.