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Innovating During Coronavirus


 

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By Sarah Holbrook and Donald Dunphy

April 2020

 
We are all living in a time warp as our collective confinement continues, but let us reminisce a moment back to Q1 2020.  In January, California residents gained the right to wrestle back their user data from the tech platforms and other companies that had captured and exploited it. In February, Senator Josh Hawley posited that the FTC should take over Google, and Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced an antitrust modernization bill as a cudgel against big tech. The country was speeding toward a new era where the big technology companies would be reined in and privacy protections would soon sweep the nation. Instead weeks later, what nearly swept us under was a global pandemic.

We are looking for a way out and it is those same big tech companies we complained about that are helping us get through.  

 
Fleet Staff Goes Online
 
While some fleets have been completely shut down as nonessential during Covid-19 social distancing, others have been working overtime to meet health and emergency needs. There is a common denominator between them both.  All across the United States, workers with the ability to complete their tasks from home have been doing so. Alongside emails and cellphones, GoToMeeting and Zoom have become ubiquitous.
 
And that has resulted in some privacy complications. As reported on CNET.com, Zoom has come under fire for a number of potential privacy and security issues as use of the platform surges. Such security issues have given rise to "Zoombombing," when uninvited attendees break into and disrupt your meeting.  On April 5, 2020, the company announced that integrations to improve security would be enabled.

 
Can We Have Contact Tracing and Privacy?
 
Before this pandemic, the idea that American citizens might opt in to have our movements, purchase activity, contacts, and health data shared with an online platform would sound like something dystopian. Yet, the new normal is the reality that health organizations need to know where individuals have been, if they have been exposed to the virus and where they may inadvertently be spreading it. 
 
For many years, there has been a central argument between fleets that seek ownership of data their vehicles collect and the OEMs which see aggregating and selling that data as a viable revenue stream. Why should a vehicle provider know more about cars, trucks, and those who drive them than their owners? Until now, there were few counterarguments that could be raised. Contact tracing, the ability to trace and monitor contacts of infected people, is one. 

 

We are looking for a way out and it is those same big tech companies we complained about that are helping us get through.  

 
Within the academic and tech communities there has been a tug of war between one side (MIT, University of Toronto, McGill, Harvard) using the GPS-based location tracking systems and a team at Stanford, Covid-Watch, who are promoting a less invasive Bluetooth-based technology. Covid-Watch founder and Stanford computer scientist Cristina White argues, “The best way to protect geolocation data from abuse is not to collect it in the first place.” Apple and Google have chosen this less invasive approach and will soon be releasing a set of tools enabling widespread contact tracing, part of an essential test and trace regimen critical to re-opening the economy. The two companies claim that the data collected will not be stored on a server. This is good news.  Not only has big tech stepped up and created a streamlined tracking method that works within the most used operating systems, but they have also chosen to mitigate the worst privacy risks we’ve witnessed in other countries battling the coronavirus.
 
While this is good news for private users who seek to keep their private lives private, it poses complications to businesses which rely on vehicle telematics not only to track worker locations, but also to monitor vehicle usage. Telematics have the data-retrieval capacity to monitor speeding, hard-braking, unnecessary idling and a host of other behaviors that affect costs and productivity.  

 
Survival = Surveillance?
 
In the U.S. during those early weeks we watched as China aggressively wove existing consumer technology platforms into the fabric of the pandemic responseOn March 1, The New York Times reported on the technology, “A new system uses software to dictate quarantines and appears to send personal data to police, in a troubling precedent for automated social control.”  
 
Israel followed suit enlisting a robust and punitive approach.  The Washington Post reports, “In addition to the location-tracking effort, (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s caretaker government…authorized prison sentences of up to six months for anyone breaching isolation orders.”
 
Fast Company reported on South Korea’s widespread surveillance efforts that have proved relatively successful, “The Ministry of the Interior and Safety’s smartphone app tracks users’ GPS location and also ties into a broad network of other monitoring: CCTV, credit card activity, cellphone tower logs, and more. If you test positive for COVID-19, the results will be shared with everyone you’ve spent time with.” In China, Israel, South Korea, Hong Kong, and other countries, citizens are virtually required to participate in mass surveillance. By contrast, the Apple/Google system is strictly voluntary. 
 
WIRED reported on a call from a spokesperson for the Apple/Google project, "As platform companies, we’ve both been thinking hard about what we can do to help get people back to normal life and back to work effectively. We think in bringing the two platforms together we can solve digital contact tracing at scale in partnership with public health authorities and do it in a privacy-preserving way."


Privacy Comes Off Life Support

The Apple/Google system has taken consumer data privacy off life support and allays the concerns of even the fiercest privacy advocates. A statement from the  ACLU reads, "To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement. We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contact tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized.”
 
What Can Fleet Managers Learn From This?
 
The rapid development of Apple and Google’s tracing technology dovetails with the bedrock American principal of privacy and demonstrates the efficacy of a problem-solving culture.   But it comes with significant caveats. For fleet managers on the job, the ability to track drivers and their vehicles is imperative for cost-savings, safety and sustainable practices. That same fleet manager on off hours, driving home from a day at work, likely prefers his or her movements not be cataloged by an unknown third party. 
 
In a new world of global disruption due to contagion, both sides of the privacy debate may need to be less dogmatic and meet in the middle. Contact tracing for the greater good of the nation’s health may open the gates to other apps and systems that keep us in touch and on someone else’s grid.
 
We should take a page out of the “invention is the mother of necessity” playbook and imagine how to use an Apple/Google app as an opt-in optimization tool for our members.

As Apple has advised us, “Think Different.” 


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