Show me the data

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hi all, it's Eric. The creators of the digital surveillance state experienced the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in their own special ways. Airbnb Inc. noticed bookings in China fall off a cliff. Yelp saw searches for fitness and exercise equipment searches increase by 424%, while people reduced their queries about breweries by 68%. Researchers monitoring 400 electric meters in the New York City saw that people who shelter in place wake up later.

Most of the time the internet panopticon is an unambiguously terrifying prospect from the perspective of consumer privacy. Why should retailers be able to track a phone as it pings Bluetooth sensors around their store?  Or piece together that someone used the phone that's now in aisle six to click on Pornhub ads? Sure, Google needs to track my location to tell me when I've made a wrong turn, but does it need a comprehensive database on human movement?

Regulators had just started to crack down on protecting user privacy when the pandemic hit. California passed a sweeping privacy law that went into effect in January. That law—which the state planned to start enforcing this summer—won't stop every kind of creepy surveillance. But it will at least make companies disclose more about what they're doing.

The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to set the privacy debate back. The same tools that the Chinese government has been using to track dissidents could now help it slow the spread of the coronavirus. In in the U.S., Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Apple Inc. are teaming up to help determine who comes in contact with people infected with Covid-19. There have been plenty of concerns raised about the new tracking software, but also an openness to it that would have been hard to imagine even three months ago.

With all eyes on Apple and Google, they have an incentive to keep each other honest on how they use the data. They've already said they're going to delete our information over time. It's all the other data that companies are inhaling that's on my mind. Even before the pandemic, running app Strava Inc. inadvertently outed secret military bases. It now must have a pretty good sense for which of its users are now setting out for their runs from their vacation homes.

Any company that's collecting regular location data could figure out who has the means to flee—and probably make other valuable conclusions about the society-wide changes the pandemic is wreaking in real-time. It's a bracing reminder of how much private data leaks from our daily routines. And that makes me kind of … jealous?

I'd like a dashboard that tells me when people stop showing up at Chipotle and start stocking up on toilet paper. Hedge funds that spend money tracking parking lots and oil fields by satellite have some fascinating insights into the unfolding crisis.

It's too late to say realistically that we'll just stop collecting data. But at what point are we going to start demanding public access to the intelligence built on it? I'd like to benefit, too. Maybe we could see the next crisis coming sooner if data wasn't being hoarded by private corporations. Or at least I'd have better intelligence about my neighbors hoarding toilet paper before the store runs out.—Eric Newcomer

If you read one thing

Zoom misrepresented how popular it is. The company wrote in a blog post that it had 300 million daily users, but then the quietly backtracked. It turned out that when a single person logged into more than one meeting a day, Zoom was counting that as visits from multiple "participants." 

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

Apple declines to predict the future. The company didn't issue a forecast for the first time in more than a decade.

Bill Gates says vaccine could take 9 months. Or as long as two years

Crypto is still a thing? Andreessen Horowitz doubles down on blockchain with a $550 million cryptocurrency fund.

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