Big Tech’s Pandemic Power Grab

illustration
Pablo Delcan

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the tech industry yearned to prove its indispensability to the world. Its executives liked to describe their companies as “utilities.” They came by their self-aggrandizement honestly: The founding fathers of Big Tech really did view their creations as essential, and essentially good.

In recent years, however, our infatuation with these creations has begun to curdle. Many Americans have come to view them as wellsprings of disinformation, outrage, and manipulation—and have noticed that the most profitable companies in human history haven’t always lived by the idealism of their slogans.

Now an opportunity for the tech companies to affirm their old sense of purpose has arisen. In the midst of the pandemic, Google Meet has become a delivery mechanism for school. AmazonFresh has made it possible to shop for groceries without braving the supermarket.

The government has flailed in its response to the pandemic, and Big Tech has presented itself as a beneficent friend, willing to lend a competent hand. As Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, wrote in April, “The challenges we face demand an unprecedented alliance between business and government.”

[From the October 2018 issue: Yuval Noah Harari on why technology favors tyranny]

Also in April, Google and Apple announced that they would suspend their rivalry to work with nations of the world to create a new alert system. They would reconfigure their mobile operating systems, incompatible by design, to notify users if they have stepped within the radius of a device held by a COVID‑19 patient.

The companies have failed to impress some public-health officials with their initial efforts, but their hastily designed program will likely improve with subsequent iterations. It could evolve to function like the official papers that Europeans are always fumbling to present to the authorities in grainy war movies. By documenting your history of social contact, your phone could be used to help demonstrate your fitness to return to the office or board a flight.

The shock of the virus has overwhelmed government at every level. In states facing an unmanageable deluge of unemployment claims, Amazon and Google have stepped in to revamp antique systems so that money can flow with less bureaucratic friction. When Nadella invoked the possibilities of a new alliance, he was alluding to the abrupt shift to telemedicine and virtual learning. Public health and education may be traditional functions of government, but Nadella suggested that his industry should share the burden: “We at Microsoft view ourselves as digital first responders.”

The blessings bestowed by the online economy in this strange time are indisputable, and we should be grateful for them. But that’s not a reason to suspend skepticism of the tech industry as it attempts to make the most of the moment. In the years before the virus, critics began to prophesy that a handful of tech companies would soon grow more powerful than the government. Their scale and influence, and their ability to manipulate public opinion and shape markets, would permit them to reign unimpeded.

That warning, however dark, didn’t quite capture the emerging strategy of these firms—a strategy that was in fact taking shape before the pandemic began—or the graver threat they pose. Rather than supplanting government, they have, in essence, sought to merge with it.

Tech executives didn’t always yearn to work in league with government. During their years of wild growth and political immaturity, the tech companies sounded like teenagers encountering Ayn Rand for the first time. Like John Galt, the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, they muttered about the evils of government and how it kept down great innovators. This view of the world smacked of self-interest. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook wanted to avoid the sorts of regulatory controls that constrained their older, more established competitors.

But if self-interest neatly aligned with idealism, the idealism was real. Google’s co‑founder Sergey Brin, a refugee from the former Soviet Union, warned about the moral costs of the company’s foray into China. He styled himself a purist, and the company’s experience in the country ultimately illustrated the logic of his stance: Despite abiding by the dictates of the regime, Google was breached by Chinese hackers, who attempted to steal its intellectual property and peer into the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists. In 2010, after four years of operating on the mainland, Google decamped to Hong Kong.

[From the June 2020 issue: Franklin Foer on how Putin is well on his way to stealing the next election]

Across the industry, distrust of the state prevailed—and not just of the authoritarian state. In 2016, Apple famously refused the FBI’s request to crack the password of a dead terrorist’s iPhone. “We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” CEO Tim Cook wrote in an open letter explaining his company’s defiant stance.

But as idealistic companies age, they start to reconsider the principles of their youth. And the major tech firms can no longer plausibly pass as plucky start-ups. An antimonopoly movement, with adherents on both the left and the right, has been slowly rising.

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate in 2018, he preemptively conceded, “I think the real question as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be [regulation] or not.” The statement was an acknowledgment of the zeitgeist. Big Tech stood accused of spreading disinformation, profiteering from its trade in private data, and contributing to an epidemic of teenage anxiety.

Zuckerberg invited government oversight, but not because he’d been chastened. In the past, when the public has grown suspicious of corporate behemoths, those companies have entered into a grand bargain: In exchange for government protection of their monopoly, the firms will abide by the dictates of the state. That’s why, in the 1910s, the visionary AT&T president Theodore Vail famously submitted his company to invasive regulation. This allowed him to preserve its dominance for generations. Zuckerberg, too, welcomes new rules, so long as they can be shaped to Facebook’s advantage. And Facebook is indeed busy shaping regulation to its advantage. Last year, it spent roughly $17 million on lobbying—more than any other tech company.

This same basic logic led Amazon to plant its second headquarters on the Potomac River, and it’s led companies like Google and Microsoft to build relationships with the intelligence community. Eminences from these companies sit on official boards that counsel the government about how to upgrade its computing prowess. It’s telling that the nastiest internecine fight among the tech firms involves a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Department of Defense.

[From the November 2019 issue: Franklin Foer on Jeff Bezos’s master plan]

As the pandemic accelerates Big Tech’s insinuation into government affairs, the industry’s most powerful companies will almost certainly exploit their relationships with agencies to damage less powerful rivals and extract lucrative contracts. But the companies will also provide valuable information and services to their Washington clients, increasing the government’s powers, for good and for ill.

President Donald Trump insists that his handling of the pandemic has been a success, but the government is desperately aware of its shortcomings. It wants tests but can’t procure enough of them. It needs contact tracing but has struggled to build a system to handle that. More than anything, it needs an aura of competence to cover for its flailing efforts. As the nation awaits a vaccine, the government may have no choice but to rely on Big Tech to compensate for its gaps in ability and expertise.

Such a collaboration would be worrying under any circumstances, but it’s terrifying in the Trump era. This administration has low regard for the principles of liberal democracy, and a penchant for looking longingly at the powers available to autocrats. And we know what an autocracy powered by information technology can achieve.

China’s tech industry has helped construct an advanced surveillance state beyond George Orwell’s imaginative capacities. Technology companies practice the science of exploiting data to alter human behavior—ideal for a state eager to engineer the loyalty of its people. China’s nascent social-credit system maintains a running tally of “good” behavior. The ratings are the basis for rewards and punishments. A citizen can lose the right to travel if he is caught jaywalking or playing music too loud. Private firms have assessed creditworthiness based on such metrics. According to Wired, “The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources” that can be pulled up by a fingerprint or other biometric information.

The U.S., of course, is a long way off from such a system. Even so, past crises can be read as an instruction manual for how to make the most of an atmosphere of anxiety and trauma. A year before 9/11, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report recommending robust legislation restricting the corporate use of online data—which would have included a right to correct (or delete) personal information. But the terrorist attacks scrambled the national calculus. Security took priority over other considerations: The nation quickly acculturated itself to omnipresent CCTV cameras, body scanners in airports, and a drastic extension of powers to opaque government agencies.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that this atmosphere allowed Google and Facebook to emerge as powerhouses. By eroding concern for privacy, the terrorist attacks established the conditions that gave these companies the latitude to plunder personal data. In a meaningful sense, the fears of that moment gave birth to the dystopian realities of this one.

Now, according to the nonprofit Privacy International, at least 27 countries have begun using cellphone data to track the spread of the coronavirus. The Washington Post has reported that more than two dozen governments are testing software called Fleming, developed by the Israeli firm NSO. The participation of NSO does not inspire confidence. Amnesty International has accused the firm of making spyware that states have used to monitor human-rights activists and other nettlesome dissidents, including, allegedly, the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Google and Apple are not NSO. They remember the backlash visited upon the companies that Edward Snowden exposed in 2013 as having worked with the National Security Agency. Rather than giving the government exactly the data it craves, they have tried to dictate the terms of the partnership and posed as the guardian of civil liberties. They have designed their COVID‑19 alert system to prevent the centralized collection of data and promised that the system will disappear with the disease. (It should be noted, however, that a primary reason for their reluctance to track everything the government wants tracked is that they don’t want to drain the batteries of their customers’ phones.) Over time, Google and Apple will likely face growing pressure to surveil COVID‑19 patients just as closely as they follow those who use their maps.

As tech and government grow more comfortable with each other, they’ll face the temptation to further indulge their shared worst instincts. Both wield intrusive powers with inconsistent regard for the prerogatives of privacy. Both possess a not-so-humble sense that they can change public behavior. Even some academics who have praised Google and Apple’s system have issued a stark warning. More than 300 European scientists and privacy scholars signed an open letter stating, “We are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep … allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”

Without new constraints, this emerging alliance could grow more imperious than the apparatus that appeared after 9/11. In the decades since those attacks, the smartphone has become a universal fact of modern existence, a repository of sensitive thoughts, candid photographs, and closely guarded secrets.

One lesson from China is that partnerships between the state and powerful tech companies must be kept shallow at best. The U.S. government should create a Data Protection Agency, modeled after the ones in Europe and empowered to scrutinize how these companies exploit the information that flows through their devices and platforms. And instead of treating Silicon Valley as the senior partner in the relationship, the government should use its clout to impose a moratorium on tech mergers, preserving the possibility of a competitive marketplace on the other side of the virus.

In the years after World War II, such constraints would have been considered commonsense. A bipartisan antitrust consensus was built, in part, on the memory of German conglomerates like Siemens, Krupp, and IG Farben, which had cheerfully acceded to the rise of fascism and handsomely profited from it. For the people of that generation, monopolies were less a menace to the consumer than to democracy. They were convinced that a symbiosis of concentrated economic power and concentrated political power was a path to fascism. Those warnings should also haunt the construction of the post-COVID‑19 order. A world where monopoly exists in coalition with the only force more powerful than itself can never be healthy, even if it is no longer ill.


This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “Beware the Digital Cure.”