Dear Mr. Mark Gimein,
Your magazine is a weekly pleasure to read, and I appreciate the work you do in editing it.
I wanted to write to you in response to the Editor's letter from the April 17 issue. I agree with much of what you wrote, but I was struck by the portion: "Given how well technology has worked where much else has failed, I now wish we'd left more in the hands of technology companies."
I think this view is dangerous, deeply incorrect, but also very understandable.
Understandable because of the gloss and polish and allure of technology companies, along with the broad perception that their geniuses work society-changing magic on a daily basis. Technology is amazing, there are many geniuses and brilliant people producing staggering innovation at these companies, and technology has produced many serious benefits.
Dangerous because technology companies (not all of them, but most of the big players, Google, Amazon, Facebook) have regularly abused the trust placed in them by consumers in order to meet their own objectives (usually just higher revenue), while free of the transparency requirements (or other formal restrictions on power) we see in government. Technology companies increasingly sell services that guide public life; whether it is something as egregious as targeting misleading products to vulnerable groups like the "Physically/Mentally Abused" demographic subgroup (https://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/for_profit_report/PartI-PartIII-SelectedAppendixes.pdf), or using proprietary algorithms like COMPAS to inform criminal sentencing guidelines (https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/InsideTrack/Pages/Article.aspx?Volume=9&Issue=14&ArticleID=25730#3) or merely something as innocuous as charging higher prices for services based on predicted demographics (https://www.propublica.org/article/asians-nearly-twice-as-likely-to-get-higher-price-from-princeton-review).
Increasingly, the insights that technology companies claim to have about people have concrete impacts on their lives. Giving technology companies more access to data is going to accelerate that process. And giving technology companies (especially the data-driven giants whose primary source of income is providing services to permit sellers to target consumers) access to healthcare data is especially dangerous given the unique sensitivity of healthcare data and the difficulties in anonymizing data (https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/24/researchers-spotlight-the-lie-of-anonymous-data/, one source, although there is a truly abundant supply of research on this).
Incorrect because what is needed is not better technology, but better preparation and government. On Page 11 of the April 17 issue South Korea's success in slowing the spread of coronavirus is lauded. Notably the Korean CDC set up a response team at the beginning of January, three days after the news of the outbreak in Wuhan, and the South Korean government and society had learned from the MERS outbreak in 2015. The solution to slowing the spread of coronavirus in the US hinges on widespread testing and a real government response to COVID-19, rather than invasive surveillance. And while the South Korean government did use "invasive surveillance" (as did Israel, and China, and a host of other governments, many of whom have had success in slowing the spread), the Electronic Frontier Foundation discusses whether those measures were significantly helpful (https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/03/governments-havent-shown-location-surveillance-would-help-contain-covid-19). Finally, any sort of surveillance or contact monitoring is dependent on one critical input: testing for coronavirus. Leaving more in the hands of technology companies without having established widespread and effective testing is ineffective at best.
The solution is improving government (however absurd of a solution that might sound), not outsourcing governance to technology companies.
I hope that I've been able to convey what I have meant to here. I greatly enjoy the Week, and look forward to the Editor's letter in particular. It is not my intent for this to be any sort of invective. While I fervently disagree with your view on the role of tech companies, I believe it is a belief that reasonable people can come to, and sincerely hope that some of my message here has at least tempered your views on that role.