One result of one year into the pandemic: Privacy might be dead
Mar 15, 2021

One result of one year into the pandemic: Privacy might be dead

It’s been a full year since the coronavirus outbreak became widespread in the U.S. All this week, we’re talking about what we learned or didn't learn, and what it means for what comes next.

It’s been a full year since the coronavirus outbreak became widespread in the U.S. And all this week on our show, we’re talking about what we learned or didn’t learn, and what it all means for what comes next.

Last year around this time, we talked with Amy Webb, a futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute, about how businesses might respond to the pandemic and how things might change in the future as a result of such a big direction-changing event. One thing she was really clear on is that most likely the pandemic would accelerate the death of privacy. And now, Amy Webb said, that definitely happened, starting in school. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A photo of Amy Webb, a futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute.
Amy Webb (Rich Polk/Getty Images)

Amy Webb: One of the interesting things that has happened over the past 12 months is that we’ve really relaxed some of our feelings about privacy and security. For a lot of people who were able to send their kids back to school, those schools required downloading an application and filling out pretty private details about your children that ranged from where you’ve traveled to whether or not somebody had symptoms. All of that’s attached to that child’s name. And it gets uploaded. And there was no choice. If you want your kid to go to school, you have to download this app to your phone, which by the way, there’s a lot of other personally identifiable information that’s attached to it. And it’s not like these apps are sending purely anonymized data back and forth. We’re going to have to reconcile that at some point. And here’s like another interesting set of connections that I can make about the past 12 months: Multiple times, we’ve been in situations, whether it was the emergence of the coronavirus, or the insurrection on the Capitol, or the craziness and volatility in the [stock] market as a result of GameStop trading, in previous years, our government institutions and our regulators would have stepped in, and they would have stepped in to mitigate what was happening. And instead, we saw companies stepping in either to provide services that the government couldn’t or to regulate in some way. One of the things that we saw happen as a result of the virus was something that I call a CDoS. It’s like a DDoS, except companies. So rather than it being a distributed denial of service, it’s a corporate denial of service. And it happened again and again. And I think we are now on a path where we have to ask, given what we’ve just seen over the past 12 months, what role in the future do our institutions play? And what influence do companies actually have on society that maybe they’ve had for a while, but we haven’t been willing to confront? And what does that mean for all of us going forward?

Molly Wood: So fair to say [that] examples of a CDoS would be, for example, Twitter banning President Trump, Robinhood shutting down trading when things got really volatile with GameStop?

Webb: That’s right — [Amazon Web Services] and Parler. I mean, we can rattle off, at this point, a pretty long list. And again, our governmental institutions in this country were not set up to move fast and break things. There’s one way to look at this. Last year, at this time, when we talked, the virus felt like it was emerging. The problem is that we had like a four-month lead time, and there just wasn’t any action taken. So, in a way, everybody kind of dragged their heels and failed to make decisions and contingency plans at every level, and in every type of business, and in every school. Nobody seemed to be prepared, even though we were essentially watching a slow-motion explosion happening. And then, in the aftermath of that, we saw — there’s no other way to phrase this — a government leadership that just didn’t have the chops. We had people running the show that just didn’t have the experience. And I think that created this vacuum for Google and Apple to step in and try to build contact-tracing systems. And a year later, everyday people stepped up to build coronavirus vaccine information websites because it was so challenging and there was no direction whatsoever. And in the interim, we’ve got companies making decisions about whether or not to allow people to do their business or to say what they want to say. I think there’s been a really profound shift that everyday people will start to recognize. That hasn’t been apparent yet because we’ve been dealing with the crisis from day to day.

Wood: You know, it’s clear that in some ways, this has been a big disruption, but it’s kind of just the beginning, right? We’ve got really disruptive technologies coming. Some of them might be great, in terms of medical advances. Some of them will be AI-driven, and that could kind of go either way. Are we more or less prepared as a society, do you think?

Webb: I would hope that as the fever breaks from this series of catastrophic events that we emerge with more self-awareness. And part of that self-awareness is that things can change at any time and we have to be flexible in our thinking about the future. That’s my hope.

Wood: And yet you don’t sound that confident.

Webb: Well, listen, I am seeing….

Wood: We’re still in it. We should acknowledge, right?

Webb: We’re still in it. That’s right, we are still in it. I mean, this is going to seem kind of out of left field. But some of the exuberance we’re currently seeing around cryptoart and cryptoassets, the sort of rush of people getting really excited, to me, that signifies that we’re still grappling with all the change. My bigger concern, however, is that the fundamental problems aren’t going away. And the fundamental problems are that there’s too great a separation between government and tech and business. Investors are very much focused on the D in [research and development] and not so much the R. So they don’t make room for longer-term planning and building risk models and stuff. They’re not interested in that; they want fast returns. And we have businesses that are in a situation where they’re not making good decisions for the longer term. We should emerge from this with a different perspective. But we have to then be willing to act differently. And I’m not seeing that yet.

Wood: Tell me more about the cryptoart. I assume you’re referring to nonfungible tokens and this kind of experimentation with creating new types of assets. Do you mean that it’s kind of a symptom of this idea that there are no rules, that there’s different kinds of land grabs? When there’s blood in the street, buy property?

Webb: That was beautiful, what you just said, and so true. So, nonfungible tokens — here’s the thing, though. We’ve been here before. So like CryptoKitties, there were memes a couple of years ago that kind of did the same thing, so this is not a brand-new idea. The speed with which there is a turnover of ideas tells me that people are grappling with change and feeling the sense of urgency. I think everybody, a year later, because there was this expectation that didn’t get met, the dust was going to settle and things were going to return to normal — when that didn’t happen, and it kept not happening over and over and over again, we’re trying to figure out where we are in this new world, the new world disorder. We’re trying to figure out what our place is in it. And I think that’s causing CEOs to make weird decisions and people to make strange investments.

Wood: Has there been a new path over the last year, something that you would not have anticipated, something that was opened up that either raises a lot of questions or is a whole new direction?

Webb: You know, I guess I did not see COVID-19 accelerating the adoption of national digital ID programs. We’re on this new path because of the virus, and to walk along that path, increasingly we’re all going to be asked for these data points that will very likely be housed at a national level, whether that’s a COVID-19 vaccine passport of some kind or a record of who you’ve interacted with and where you’ve been. And I think that’s pretty concerning.

Wood: I mean, that’s what you told us. You said, “I think this will lead to the end of privacy.”

Webb: And it has. If you take nothing away from this conversation, just know that privacy is dead. That sounds apocalyptic and horrible. And it kind of is, but if we can —

Wood: I watch a lot of comic book movies, so resurrection is possible, I hope?

Webb: I mean, here’s the thing, there’s no going back. There is no going back. Privacy is dead. So let’s acknowledge that. Let’s acknowledge it and figure out a better way to move forward. The problem is that we are not publicly acknowledging it. We are just pressing on and hoping nothing goes wrong.

Wood: Similarly, what paths do you think closed or are now delayed?

Webb: Everybody that works with me is going to be upset with me for saying this. I think business travel is done. Before we had this conversation today, I was in a client meeting in Sweden, a client meeting in Norway and somewhere in the middle of all of this, we had a staff meeting in New York. All of that was virtual. None of it would have been possible or even conceived of before the pandemic happened because at that point, all meetings were happening in person. My assumption is that the business travel that used to exist is probably gone.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Here’s a little more reading about privacy and surveillance and the pandemic. Later in the week, we’ll revisit a conversation we had last year about surveillance tech that’s supposed to make people feel safer about going out in public or to work but is mostly just theater. That’s all still likely to be happening, and Human Rights Watch has a piece about how other countries with more repressive regimes have definitely jumped on the pandemic as an opportunity to roll out even more aggressive monitoring, whether video or facial recognition or location tracking. Here, in our somewhat repressive regime, the story notes that some unemployment insurance agencies are using facial recognition software to try to verify people’s identities that are both intrusive and buggy, and that tech problems here include things we’ve talked about: buggy websites, confusing and inconsistent sign-up for benefits or vaccines, and outdated infrastructure.

Speaking of infrastructure, Tuesday on the show we’ll talk to the CEO of AT&T’s communications division about broadband internet access and why the company has been slow to lay fiber to homes. Also, where it thinks wireless will fill in the gaps.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer