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Could COVID-19 be the challenge IT can’t (or won’t) solve? Spoiler alert: Yes

Could COVID-19 be the challenge IT can’t (or won’t) solve? Spoiler alert: Yes

Domestic U.S. IT companies, at one time seemingly invincible, globally admired and widely envied, today might as well be standing in a dark room full of upturned rakes. Every step brings a newly bloodied nose. Secure biometric systems to battle COVID-19 could prove the biggest and most dangerous rake yet.

Other hazards that too many CEOs and entrepreneurs have laid for themselves: entitled frat-boy behavior, billions of dollars in revenue hidden overseas as state coffers collapse, abysmal wages and working conditions for those laboring in low-skilled jobs and plateaued consumer product lines.

The next blunder could be a misstep in addressing the pandemic with IT products. That idea popped up during a recent video panel that focused on the critical need for tech companies to adequately address health care privacy in the era of COVID-19.

On the surface, the emphasis was on health care consumers and others who could find their data slung around the nation (and possibly even globally), transmitted from their phones to edge systems and the cloud. That cannot be done today with the reliability it demands.

Posted in May and republished in July, the discussion was sponsored by PR giant APCO Worldwide and featured one of its most important clients, Microsoft Corp.

Laura Gardner, Microsoft’s director of global privacy policy, was joined by Dakota Gruener, executive director of the nongovernmental organization ID2020, which pushes for digital identification for undocumented people everywhere. Rounding out the panel was Vilas Dhar, trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation Inc.

Microsoft is participating in the growing industry campaign to corral the coronavirus, and, in April, it also took a crack at organizing the industry around commonsense themes for health care product strategy and development. Its seven privacy principles can be found here.

Gardner never said as much, but it is hard to imagine a large digital firm ignoring any of the principles and not paying a high price — at least in the European Union. The EU has been the antidote to China’s open hunger for any and all data about its citizens.

The U.S. federal government still has not even worked out basic rules for testing driverless vehicles much less for safeguarding personal digital data. And only a handful U.S. states have made any meaningful efforts.

“Do we have the level of technical competence necessary in (federal) policy-making institutions and bodies that even let us have this conversation,” Dhar asked rhetorically. There are some governmental bodies starting to ask about the topic, he said.

“They are saying, ‘We need to have these questions answered, and they must be answered quickly,” said Dhar. In some quarters, they are calling for “robust conversation with institutions and industry.”

In the meantime, this has left policy to IT firms. The social media and search titans, whose business model is selling anonymized member data, have, for the most part, tried to stand still amid the rakes. Apple Inc. vocally boasts how it secures customer data, but not everyone takes its word.

Then there is Clearview AI, the Hercules of ‘don’t ask/just sell’ face scraping. The startup has, however improbable as it might seem, left Silicon Valley speechless. It is an embarrassment to some, an interesting case study to others.

So what is the future for companies dealing in and otherwise handling private health care data?

Dhar said he is worried about a backlash should the industry louse up this situation.

“If we drive for quick and fast implementation that serves first-order needs, but creates second-order harms and vulnerabilities, it might end up killing trust that technology can lead to positive social good,” he said.

Beyond acting carefully and ethically, it will be critical for the industry to be transparent in how everything from apps to entire systems are built, Dhar said. And not just open to policy makers. He is calling for radical transparency right down to the public.

“I don’t see the conversations needed around data and the public good,” Dhar said. He posed a basic question he said is going unasked. “What does it mean to create technical silos of data that will be used by certain entities (in relation to) ‘common ownership’ of data?”

No one is even trying to figure out the assignment of rights and responsibilities regarding health care data. Citizens, civil society, employers, governments and others all are part of the final answer, according to Dhar.

The possibility that went unexplored is if tech companies do not see enough upside and sit this one out. Tech would not have failed, but nor would it have delivered on its often-marketed innovation, much less ideals.

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