White House turns to Big Tech to fix coronavirus blunders while classifying previous conversations

What are Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft et al supposed to do? We have some ideas

Faced with a growing barrage of criticism over how it has handled the outbreak of the coronavirus, the White House has turned to tech giants to help it tackle the pandemic.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held a meeting on Wednesday with representatives from Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and others in a bid to figure out how to get a handle on the problem.

Michael Kratsios, CTO at the White House said the federal government was hoping that Big Tech would be able to use AI and data tools to provide useful insights as it unveils new measures for tackling the crisis.

“Cutting-edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck effort,” Kratsios said in a statement.

At the same time, however, it emerged the White House was also ordering all deliberations over covid-19 to be considered classified, effectively restricting discussions to only those with a top secret classification.

According to officials, dozens of classified discussions that covered issues like the size and scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions were held at a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The upshot of that level of classification and secrecy has been that some acknowledged experts have not been allowed to attend meetings, a number of anonymous sources have said.

One such source told Reuters that the order to classify the information - a highly unusual request given the topic and the fact that it involves public health and not national security - came directly from the White House.

What can tech do?

As to what tech companies can realistically do to help fight the spread of covid-19, we spoke to one company that specializes in that sort of analysis, Globant.

Tech Manager Gonzalo Raposo told us: "Big tech has access to valuable data analytics and monetary resources that may prove vital in containing and limiting the spread of the Coronavirus. There have been innovations in genetic technology that can track the evolution of Covid-19 to know exactly how it evolved and where it comes from.

"Tests from samples at any place in the world are available to healthcare professionals around the globe through centralized databases, ready to fire off alarms of new cases before it is too late. This data collection can only be done with the support of federal officials.

Raposo continued: "If big tech gains access to medical data and patterns, they can support containment efforts by quickly pinpointing the source of illness within vulnerable communities. While this could present some data privacy and HIPAA compliance concerns if rushed, an organized effort between big tech and the federal government may be crucial to controlling this illness' spread."

He also pointed out that the main purpose of the World Health Organization - which today finally declared covid-19 a pandemic - is "to report the facts about this infectious disease, not to take preventative actions."

Wrapped in red tape

It has also emerged in recent days that the federal government was responsible for a slow response to early testing of the virus, particularly in Seattle, where officials refused to allow medical centers to carry out their own testing, ordered those that did to stop and maintained bureaucratic barriers that have continued to delay the availability of testing kits.

In the meantime, the House of Representatives are pushing for an extension of sick pay in order to encourage sick employees to stay at home, and the White House suggesting an extension to annual tax-filing deadlines and a payroll tax lift in order to ease economic burdens on citizens.

None of that has helped build confidence in the markets however and on Wednesday, the Dow officially entered a “bear market” where stocks have fallen more than 20 per cent from their high in just one week.

Adding to a sense of federal government scrambling, on Wednesday, President Trump suggested he would place a “level 3 health travel notice” on the whole of Europe, effectively declaring it unsafe to visit and raising the prospect of required quarantine on any passengers between the US and Europe. The president is planning a national address for Wednesday evenings on the issue. ®

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