Just when you were wondering why the world’s biggest tech companies weren’t doing more to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Apple and Google made a big announcement: They are joining forces to build an opt-in contact-tracing tool using Bluetooth technology that could help public health officials track the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The new tool brings with it not only hope for a quicker end to the pandemic, but also a host of privacy and security concerns.
The contact-tracing tool Apple and Google want to create would have your smartphone log when you’ve come into close contact with other people. If one of those people later reports Covid-19 symptoms to a public health authority, your phone would send you an alert. It works a bit like exchanging contact information with everyone you meet, except everything is designed to be anonymous and automatic.
Instead of contact info, your smartphone will periodically exchange anonymized tracing keys with nearby devices. Both devices maintain a list of the keys they’ve collected on a cloud server, and when one person reports an infection, they have the option of sending an alert to people they’ve recently been in contact with. That alert will share information for what those people should do next.
Those are the broad strokes of what’s sure to be a very complex public-health-focused surveillance system. It represents an unprecedented partnership between two competing tech giants, one that could forever change the way our devices talk to each other.
(Apple and Google say that the new contact-tracing tool will work between iPhones and Android phones.) The Bluetooth-based approach also draws on beacon technology that’s already in use in retail environments — and is already a concern for privacy advocates. Understanding the privacy and security implications of this new coronavirus contact-tracing technology will take time, but based on what we know now, the tool will start rolling out soon.
How it’s built
An important thing to understand about this system is that Apple and Google aren’t doing this by themselves. The two companies are building a set of tools, known as an application programming interface (API), that lets iOS and Android apps communicate with each other.
In the first phase of the tool’s release, which will start around mid-May, Google and Apple will release the APIs so that public health authorities can then build apps that will be publicly available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. People can choose to download those apps — and again, these apps will let iPhones and Android phones talk to each other.
The tool’s second phase will roll out over the next several months. Apple and Google plan to build contact-tracing functionality into the operating systems of the phones themselves, which might sound a little tricky for folks who worry about being tracked without their consent. As the New York Times points out, by building the tool directly into the operating system, Apple and Google effectively ensure that the contact-tracing system can run 24 hours a day, rather than only when a particular app is open.
“This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities,” the companies said in a press release. “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.”
To protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google say they will build this system while keeping people’s identities anonymous throughout the process. That’s because the companies say they won’t build a database of who has Covid-19 and whom they’ve been in contact with. Instead, they’ll store that information in temporary, anonymous cryptographic keys that refresh every 15 minutes. Meanwhile, all participation in contact tracing will be opt-in, and both companies say they plan to release regular reports on the program’s progress.
Apple and Google released technical specifications and other details about the project in press releases on Friday morning. Though it will take some time to sift through these details, the tool’s announcement has definitely caught the attention of privacy experts, who broadly seem hopeful about the anonymized, decentralized nature of what Apple and Google are building.
How it works, in theory
Which brings us back to how the tool might actually work. In their announcement, Apple and Google mapped out a hypothetical scenario that does a good job of explaining the broad strokes of the contact-tracing process. It involves two people named Alice and Bob.
Alice and Bob meet each other for the first time while sitting on a bench for a brief conversation. Because they’ve installed the new Apple and Google technology, their phones exchange anonymized tracing keys (think of these as contact info files with a unique identifier instead of a person’s contact info). These keys indicate that Alice and Bob have been in contact, and because they’ve opted in to the Apple and Google contact tracing system, this exchanging of keys happens automatically.
A few days later, Bob finds out he’s positively diagnosed with Covid-19, and he updates an app with that information. With Bob’s consent, the app then sends an alert to everyone with whom Bob exchanged keys in the last 14 days. Alice is one of these folks, so she gets a notification that she’s been in contact with someone who has Covid-19. The notification also includes information about what Alice should do next, like go get tested herself.
As captivating as these drawings are, they represent a complex marriage of technology and design. That doesn’t mean that the contact-tracing system can’t work as advertised, but there are, so far, an unknown number of caveats that will come with its potential success.
How privacy matters
In announcing this new initiative, both Apple and Google have stressed that users have to consent to participate in contact tracing, that the apps won’t collect personally identifiable information, and that people who test positive aren’t identified to anyone else. Still, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have raised privacy concerns about such contact-tracing systems — which are already being widely used in other countries such as South Korea, China, and Singapore.
“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,” Jennifer Granick, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, wrote in a public statement on Friday. “We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”
And that’s another looming question: Just how long will Apple and Google leave these contact-tracing tools embedded in their mobile operating systems? After all, if this technology can be used to track who you’ve been in contact with, it seems possible that it could also be coopted for commercial purposes or even for government surveillance. As Bennett Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said to Recode, “We don’t want anything to be built into the OS that’s going to be turned on forever.”
There are also questions about the accuracy of Bluetooth. Some have worried that Bluetooth could yield false positive matches, though it’s not yet clear exactly how Apple and Google will implement the proximity features of Bluetooth LE technology. Others have raised concerns about the location accuracy of contact-tracing mobile apps in general. Furthermore, for the tool to be most effective, a plurality of people must opt in to using it. The big test of this project’s success will be how widespread the adoption of this contact-tracing tool becomes, and if that will be enough to impact the course of this pandemic’s trajectory significantly.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the Apple-Google tool will work in practice. We’ll learn more in the weeks to come, after the companies roll out the APIs and public health authorities start releasing contact-tracing apps. But regardless of potential drawbacks, this tool represents one of the most ambitious private-public partnerships in recent history. It’s the beginning of a new future where tech companies are injecting their resources into a public health crisis, not only leveraging their power in a tremendous way but also raising questions about how this power will change society for years to come.
What will the post-COVID world look like?
Although virologists have been warning of the risks of a global pandemic since the SARS outbreak in 2003, the world was still mostly unprepared when confronted with the COVID-19 crisis. However, it was also unlucky.
It was unfortunate that the pandemic came in the run-up to a US presidential election that has created an environment as politically polarized as any the country has experienced. As a result, much of the US media coverage of, and debate about, the virus and the global policies needed to deal with its effects have been more about the presidential race rather than the pandemic.
This has obviously had a clear effect on international politics because of the importance of the role of the US and its global leadership.
It was also bad luck that the health crisis came at a time of high tensions between the US and the second largest global power, China, where the virus originated. This further complicated any potential global unified response.
As a result of the global uncertainty, it is difficult to forecast how critical aspects of the crisis, which seems likely to continue for at least another 12 months, will play out in the Middle East, and also what a post-COVID world might look like.
One certainty is that most countries will be forced to shift their focus and resources to domestic matters rather than regional issues.
The virus and the resultant shutdowns imposed to “flatten the curve” of infections have had, and will continue to have, devastating consequences on economies and national budgets. It seems that despite the soft reopening of parts of economies around the world, the current health concerns will prevent a full restoration of business activities for some time, especially if the number of infections and deaths start to rise again after governments relax precautionary measures.
In our increasingly interconnected world, it is difficult to determine whether any country will come out on top economically, and consequently geopolitically, especially given mounting levels of debt.
Countries able to borrow in their own currency seem to be at an advantage; this applies mainly to the US and the EU (if the European countries can unify their policies), and indirectly also explains the current debate in the Gulf about the unpegging of currencies.
Another certainty is that with less money available, wars and proxy wars will become prohibitively expensive and all parties will be forced to scale down their ambitions. As a result, aggression will be reduced and consensus and agreement might be more readily reached. Countries and their allies or proxies who have refused to sit at the negotiation table might now change their minds and mellow, or perhaps even be forced to completely withdraw from conflict zones.
Take Iran, for instance, which has been targeted recently by a successful US policy of maximum pressure. The country is facing problems domestically and, with the added pressure of low oil prices, it will be less able to maintain its financial support to the Houthis in Yemen, the militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah.
Does that mean Tehran will cease its meddling? Nothing is certain but domestic turmoil might force it to do so.
As Iran’s problems have grown, the region has witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic the emergence of a more assertive Turkey. This has happened despite the fact the country is also suffering economically.
It has been a long time in the making. Turkish involvement has spread to many regional issues beyond its normal national security zone. Its involvement in neighboring Syria is understandable, given that the conflict there directly threatens Turkey’s security. More interesting is the Turkish interest in Libya, where Ankara is pushing for a continued presence with no apparent direct threat or rationale to explain this. This is happening while it also increases political rhetoric that promises continued interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries in the years to come.
A closer look at the issues reveals that Turkey is focusing its involvement on key points on Europe’s energy routes. This is not surprising, as Europe remains Ankara’s main and constant focus. So, Turkey is now directly competing with Russia — the biggest supplier of gas to Europe — in Syria, where Iran is also strongly entrenched as the country is a key Mediterranean access point for its gas and energy deliveries to Europe.
Turkey is challenging Russia for control of the tap that provides Europe with its energy stability, and this explains its involvement in Libya and other countries. The same logic explains Ankara’s negative reaction to the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot gas-pipeline project, EastMed. This motivates its strategy, as it hopes to leverage it to make more gains in the region.
Therefore, we can expect an increased Turkish focus on the Mediterranean and on supply-chain routes and access points for energy, as well as merchandise being shipped from the East to Europe.
On that point, the land routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative include one that goes through Russia and another that passes through Turkey. This massive project is also something Turkey is well aware of, and Ankara is striving to ensure it has a presence on key points along the BRI’s Maritime Silk Road. Once again, it is being guided not by national security concerns but a desire to increase its regional clout.
It is difficult to forecast how critical aspects of the corona crisis will play out in the Middle East.
Khaled Abou Zahr
While Russia and Turkey face off on the ground over an increasing number of issues, it is interesting to note the apparent lack of any direct involvement by the US or China, the two biggest global powers, and, surprisingly, the total absence of European nations, which should be the most concerned about what is happening.
In weighing how global and regional powers will direct their foreign policies and manage existing conflict zones, their own domestic political, economic and social stability will play an important role.
Yet, apparent weaknesses might invite bold moves and dangerous power-grab attempts. This delicate balance will be the key driver for international policies in the coming years. One might say that uncertainty and volatility have spread from the stock-markets to the geopolitical arena.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Courtesy : Arabnews.pk
US warns of ‘consequences’ if China abandons trade deal
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday he expects China to uphold a trade deal reached with Washington this year, and warned of “consequences” if the country did not.
The comments come amid a sharp drop in global trade caused by the coronavirus pandemic as well as a dispute between the two powers over fault for the spread of the virus, which first broke out in Wuhan, China.
The US and China in January signed an agreement to end a nearly two year-long trade war, that included a commitment by Beijing to buy an additional $200 billion in American goods over the next two years.
“I’m expecting them to meet their obligations,” Mnuchin said on Fox Business Network.
“I have every reason to expect that they honour this agreement and if they don’t, there would be very significant consequences in the relationship and in the global economy as to how people would do business with them.”
However, relations between Washington and Beijing have soured in recent weeks, with US President Donald Trump blaming China for the pandemic, and threatening tariffs.
The US has been hit with tens of millions of layoffs as the virus has spread, significantly weakening the previously solid economy, which Trump was counting on to win re-election in November.
The trade agreement signed in January includes $77.7 billion in additional purchases from the manufacturing sector, $52.4 billion from the energy sector and $32 billion in agricultural products.
The US currently runs a trade deficit with China, and the objective is to realign the trade balance between the two countries.
Pakistan’s small businesses hit hard by COVID-19
Small businesses in Pakistan have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The low demand at home, disruptions in supply chains, constraints in international trading, and expected prolonged lockdowns are now leading to severe cash flow problems, the inability to pay back debts and cancellation of orders from clients.
This rising uncertainty is gradually leading them to lay off employees which will have welfare implications. In some sectors where recovery is difficult to predict, small businesses have started planning for the worst: complete shutdown. This crisis could also imply a much bleaker outcome for the startup ecosystem in Pakistan.
The government has announced a SME relief package. The central bank has also come forward to relieve some of the funding and finance related concerns of private enterprises. Yet, many micro and small businesses do not understand how to apply or if they are eligible, to receive such assistance. There are others who argue that this one off relief may not be enough given that businesses are going to face depressed demand for a longer term. Pakistan’s past record of small businesses trying to access such fiscal packages is also not encouraging, partly because many such firms do not access formal banking channels for their needs or banks impose steep collateral requirements. Also, large segments of micro enterprises have the entire or some components of their businesses in the informal sector.
Federal and provincial governments have two issues to address now: how to ensure that small businesses are able to access and utilize existing government-provided assistance, and secondly, what more can be done to support private enterprise in these times.
A progressive fiscal policy and commitment to redistributive taxation is in line with the spirit of Riasat-e-Madinah to which Prime Minister Imran Khan often refers to. A sincere effort is required to reduce the burden of compliance costs faced by small firms- often filing returns several times during a year and to multiple tax bodies across the country.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
On the former, it would be best to start by addressing information and outreach gaps. As the problems for businesses are evolving in real-time, hence there remains a need for structured and more frequent public-private dialogue which should be inclusive enough to also give representation to women, youth-led firms and social enterprises. Such a dialogue will also give a sense to the government about how these businesses will get affected in the forthcoming rounds of Covid-19.
On the latter, I believe the forthcoming budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 should be seen as an opportunity not only to provide support to collapsing businesses but also to put in place economic incentives that encourage enterprises to consider resilient business models. A large part of this has to do with reimagining a better taxation regime.
A progressive fiscal policy and commitment to redistributive taxation is in line with the spirit of Riasat-e-Madinah to which Prime Minister Imran Khan often refers to. A sincere effort is required to reduce the burden of compliance costs faced by small firms – often filing returns several times during a year and to multiple tax bodies across the country. It is an opportunity now to automate, rationalize or eliminate several filing and payment layers in taxation to ultimately help reduce the cost of doing business.
After a lot of persuasion from local think tanks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), federal and provincial governments agreed to establish a National Tax Council (NTC) to harmonize the general sales tax (GST).
Currently all provinces have a different structure of GST on services. There are also issues regarding definition of certain activities which the federal government may assume to be under its jurisdiction. Perhaps smaller firms have been the hardest hit due to the fragmented tax structure across the federation and it is time now to expedite NTC’s establishment and work in this direction. Even when the system is finally harmonized, the GST should not be collected by multiple windows at federal and provincial levels. A unified tax return and collection should be made possible through online mechanisms.
It will also be timely to think about which sectors should be motivated to scale up production and services in the face of this health-related emergency. Hospitals and private clinics operating at micro, small, and medium scale are primary candidates for cut in GST on services and even rationalization in direct tax rates. Firms producing personal protective equipment should also see a relief in taxes. The trade taxes faced by such producers or even hospitals importing from abroad need to be revisited. The agro-based and food processing enterprises will need similar help as their input supplies face price and supply volatilities.
Covid-19 also increased demand on several other sectors providing essential services. Our policy circles have rarely seen these sectors as important for the social and mental wellbeing of society until the pandemic struck. It will now be timely to recognize the services of firms (including schools) providing online services. The economic policy managers must think out of the box how best to leverage e-commerce in the battle against Covid-19.
– Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist and former civil servant. He is author of ‘Pakistan’s Agenda for Economic Reforms’ published by the Oxford University Press. Twitter: @vaqarahmed
Courtesy : ArabNews
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