What happened?

Apple and Google have jointly proposed a system for Covid-19 contact tracing. However, in doing so they have provided an alternative to the initiatives of some countries in developing their own applications. As it turns out, most of these initiatives largely rely on centralized infrastructure, in which data is stored on central servers. In contrast, Apple and Google’s system relies on a decentralized approach where data is stored locally on the user’s phone. In response, privacy advocate groups have sided with the big tech companies’ system as being more privacy friendly, which swayed countries like Germany to abort their initiatives and switch. Other countries like France and Australia have stuck with their approach and, therefore face political backlash. On the other hand, even though Google and Apple’s approach is generally preferred, they have also been critiqued for forcing their solution by leveraging their power through their dominance of the mobile market, thereby sidestepping political deliberation.

What does this mean?

Governments, big tech companies and society are figuring out how our IT infrastructure should be governed. This confrontation is particularly interesting as it shows how different governance stacks (state-controlled, industry-controlled or open) behave and interact during times of crisis. Under these circumstances governments generally seem to prefer centralized solutions as it provides them most control and the possibility to act swiftly. However, this approach also increases the risk of hacks and potential misuse by state-actors. It is not the first time that we have witnessed this dynamic. In 2015 and 2016  Apple was pressured by the FBI to compromise users’ encryption for the purpose of preventing terrorist threats.

What’s next?

This pandemic has shown our willingness to address systemic crises through the deployment of digital surveillance tech.  Going forward, this crisis will lay the groundwork for how we are going to approach other systemic risks like social unrest, terrorism and climate change using data, algorithms and IT infrastructure. Having learned from the societal backlash surrounding fake news and privacy scandals, big tech will try to preemptively self-regulate to cement their central position in society. Governments on the other hand will force big tech companies to further open up their solutions to political scrutiny.