Technology titans could help with outbreaks such as coronavirus

Big sets of data could help transform the response to outbreaks of disease, but there are privacy issues that need to be resolved.

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  1. Garry White

China’s authoritarianism should be an asset in its fight against coronavirus, as controlling the spread of a disease is much easier in a surveillance state. As well as tracking an individual’s movements, data highlighting clusters of disease can be used by medical professionals to target resources effectively. Big Data could genuinely help stop a global pandemic in its tracks – but Western concerns about privacy means major tech players may be about to be hamstrung by regulators.

As governments, particularly those in Europe, push for tighter regulations on Big Tech, it’s important that our individual desire for privacy does not stop these companies from innovating for the common good. As we leave the European Union, the UK government needs to remember that bad regulation stifles creativity. Privacy is important, but innovation is too. This is, therefore, one area that we need to see divergence from Brussels.

Regulation is the biggest current threat to the technology sector. New governance rules come with a cost and will inevitably hit company margins – and therefore valuations – in one of the most important drivers of market returns.

Last week, Facebook shares tumbled after the company posted its weakest rate of growth since going public. David Wehner, its chief operating officer, noted that global privacy regulation was going to increasingly hit growth in coming quarters. “Though we have experienced some modest impact from these headwinds to date, the majority of the impact lies in front of us,” Mr Wehner said.

Limiting progress?

There are not only moves to increase taxation on these companies, but rules to further limit what they can do with the information they collect on individuals is likely. However, scrutinising big sets of data can produce useful outcomes for us all – and could help effectively control the spread of diseases such as coronavirus.  

Data from mobile phone towers can be used to track users who have been close to a known case of a virus. Facial recognition technology can be used to track individuals – although this technology fails when people wear facemasks, as Beijing has discovered in Hong Kong. Databases can be used to enter patients’ details at medical facilities, providing a clear picture of the outbreak itself. This is just a fraction of the benefits that Big Data has to offer.

As a surveillance state, China should have been in an ideal situation to nip this outbreak in the bud.  Beijing defends the extensive monitoring of its citizens as a way of keeping its citizen’s “safe”, but Beijing’s actions in the early days of the outbreak may have done the opposite.  

The current outbreak in China coincided with the country’s Golden Week holiday, where millions of people travel around the country to see family and loved ones. In a huge state such as China, these movements make it very difficult to control the spread of a disease. But it now appears that effective measures to stop its spread could have been introduced last year.

Failures in the current outbreak

It emerged last week that the first case of coronavirus in Wuhan started showing symptoms on 1 December. As alarm grew in medical circles in December – it appears the Communist Party tried to prevent them from expressing their fears.

A doctor who told a social media group about the virus was reportedly disciplined and forced to admit wrongdoing. It was also noted that the police provided “education” and “criticism” to eight doctors for “rumour-mongering” about the epidemic. The initial, instinctive response from Beijing now appears to be a cover-up. This is likely to have led to the virus spreading across Wuhan – ensuring it could spread to every province in China during Golden Week. This, therefore, represents a failure of the surveillance state model – and has even prompted rare criticism of President Xi Jinping by Chinese citizens.

Scrutinising datasets to boost public health has already demonstrated success. In the UK, the NHS has been sharing data with Google unit DeepMind, to some criticism and disquiet amongst privacy campaigners. However, as we know with vaccination programmes, public health is always a balance between the greater good and an individual’s rights. If properly regulated, allowing tech majors to build and scrutinise large series of datasets could be very useful indeed.    

DeepMind’s latest success with NHS data relates to the detecting of breast cancer, with early research suggesting its algorithm can improve the accuracy of mammogram screenings – reducing false negatives.

Not only will over-regulating the technology sector hand a potential advantage to the Chinese – where no such privacy concerns exist – it could prevent new technologies being developed. The new European Commission, under President Ursula von der Leyen, is targeting what it sees as problems with the digital economy. It wants to modernise competition law to prevent large, power players becoming dominant and set a robust framework for the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms.

In a post-Brexit UK, technology could become an important driver of growth as the country establishes its new identity. Chancellor Sajid Javid recently made it clear that Britain will diverge from European Union rules after Brexit, although he did not specify which ones. It is clear that technology regulation is one area in which we need to diverge, becoming closer to the looser, libertarian model of the US than the highly regulated and controlled market envisioned by Brussels. Such a move will not only be good for our economy – it will probably be good for our health too.

A version of this article appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph.

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