Using AI responsibly to fight the coronavirus pandemic

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has left the world in turmoil. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has reached virtually every corner of the world, with the number of cases exceeding a million and the number of deaths more than 50,000 worldwide. It is a situation that will affect us all in one way or another.

With the imposition of lockdowns, limitations of movement, the closure of borders and other measures to contain the virus, the operating environment of law enforcement agencies and those security services tasked with protecting the public from harm has suddenly become ever more complex. They find themselves thrust into the middle of an unparalleled situation, playing a critical role in halting the spread of the virus and preserving public safety and social order in the process. In response to this growing crisis, many of these agencies and entities are turning to AI and related technologies for support in unique and innovative ways. Enhancing surveillance, monitoring and detection capabilities is high on the priority list.

For instance, early in the outbreak, Reuters reported a case in China wherein the authorities relied on facial recognition cameras to track a man from Hangzhou who had traveled in an affected area. Upon his return home, the local police were there to instruct him to self-quarantine or face repercussions. Police in China and Spain have also started to use technology to enforce quarantine, with drones being used to patrol and broadcast audio messages to the public, encouraging them to stay at home. People flying to Hong Kong airport receive monitoring bracelets that alert the authorities if they breach the quarantine by leaving their home.

In the United States, a surveillance company announced that its AI-enhanced thermal cameras can detect fevers, while in Thailand, border officers at airports are already piloting a biometric screening system using fever-detecting cameras.

Isolated cases or the new norm?

With the number of cases, deaths and countries on lockdown increasing at an alarming rate, we can assume that these will not be isolated examples of technological innovation in response to this global crisis. In the coming days, weeks and months of this outbreak, we will most likely see more and more AI use cases come to the fore.

While the application of AI can play an important role in seizing the reins in this crisis, and even safeguard officers and officials from infection, we must not forget that its use can raise very real and serious human rights concerns that can be damaging and undermine the trust placed in government by communities. Human rights, civil liberties and the fundamental principles of law may be exposed or damaged if we do not tread this path with great caution. There may be no turning back if Pandora’s box is opened.

In a public statement on March 19, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on promoting and protecting access to and free flow of information during the pandemic, and specifically took note of the growing use of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They acknowledged that there is a need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, but stressed that “it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”

This is not an easy task, but a necessary one. So what can we do?

Ways to responsibly use AI to fight the coronavirus pandemic

  1. Data anonymization: While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option still provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, but minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.
  2. Purpose limitation: Personal data that is collected and processed to track the spread of the coronavirus should not be reused for another purpose. National authorities should seek to ensure that the large amounts of personal and medical data are exclusively used for public health reasons. The is a concept already in force in Europe, within the context of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it’s time for this to become a global principle for AI.
  3. Knowledge-sharing and open access data: António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has insisted that “global action and solidarity are crucial,” and that we will not win this fight alone. This is applicable on many levels, even for the use of AI by law enforcement and security services in the fight against COVID-19. These agencies and entities must collaborate with one another and with other key stakeholders in the community, including the public and civil society organizations. AI use case and data should be shared and transparency promoted.
  4. Time limitation:  Although the end of this pandemic seems rather far away at this point in time, it will come to an end. When it does, national authorities will need to scale back their newly acquired monitoring capabilities after this pandemic. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his recent article, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities are indeed scaled back and do not become the new norm.

Within the United Nations system, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) is working to advance approaches to AI such as these. It has established a specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague and is one of the few international actors dedicated to specifically looking at AI vis-à-vis crime prevention and control, criminal justice, rule of law and security. It assists national authorities, in particular law enforcement agencies, to understand the opportunities presented by these technologies and, at the same time, to navigate the potential pitfalls associated with these technologies.

Working closely with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNICRI has set up a global platform for law enforcement, fostering discussion on AI, identifying practical use cases and defining principles for responsible use. Much work has been done through this forum, but it is still early days, and the path ahead is long.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated several innovative use cases, as well as the urgency for the governments to do their utmost to stop the spread of the virus, it is important to not let consideration of fundamental principles, rights and respect for the rule of law be set aside. The positive power and potential of AI is real. It can help those embroiled in fighting this battle to slow the spread of this debilitating disease. It can help save lives. But we must stay vigilant and commit to the safe, ethical and responsible use of AI.

It is essential that, even in times of great crisis, we remain conscience of the duality of AI and strive to advance AI for good.

FCC enacts $200M telehealth initiative to ease COVID-19 burden on hospitals

The FCC has developed and approved a $200 million program to fund telehealth services and devices for medical providers, just a week or so after the funding was announced. Hospitals and other health centers will be able to apply for up to $1M to cover the cost of new devices, services, and personnel.

The unprecedented $2 trillion CARES Act includes heavy spending on all kinds of things, from direct payments to out-of-work citizens to bailouts for airlines and other big businesses. Among the many, many funding items was a $200M earmark for the FCC with which it was instructed to improve and subsidize telehealth services around the country.

Telehealth comprises many services, from something as simple as making appointments online, to using internet-connected monitoring devices, to conducting an entire primary care visit via video chat. The latter is an incredibly important option for doctors and nurses who not only need to avoid direct contact with potentially sick patients if possible, but also need every spare minute they can muster.

“The toll this pandemic is taking on our healthcare system is clear. To the extent that connectivity solutions can provide immediate assistance with remote care and monitoring, we should use them. There is already evidence across the country that this works,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the order.

Unfortunately telehealth systems are by no means simple or easy to implement, given that they must not only meet highly stringent privacy requirements like HIPAA, but also be effortless to use for people who might not use video chat for any other purpose. Setting aside space, equipment, budget, and so on for telehealth operations is difficult and time-consuming in the best of times, let alone when care centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Even hospitals that provide some telehealth services are likely to find demand far outstripping supply right now.

The $200M FCC program is aimed at mitigating this as simply and quickly as possible. “I’m hard-pressed these days to think of any better use case for the agency’s mission of advancing connectivity than telemedicine,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

As the order, passed unanimously today, describes it:

The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program wil help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Eligible” in this case means on the following list of types of organizations or combinations thereof:

  • Medical schools and teaching hospitals
  • Community health centers and migrant care centers
  • Local health agencies and departments
  • Community mental health centers
  • Not-for-profit hospitals
  • Rural health clinics
  • Skilled nursing facilities (e.g. long term care facilities)

Any given entity may be awarded up to $1M in funding depending on its need and reach. Priority is being given to areas especially hard-hit by the virus and chronically underfunded places like clinics in poor neighborhoods that subsist on Medicare payments and the like.

There are a few restrictions as to what the funds can be used for — for instance, only internet-connected monitoring devices are covered, not ordinary “offline” ones that the patient must relay the results from via other services. But the general idea is to stay flexible and let the recipients of this money decide what to do with it.

Rosenworcel tempered her hopeful remarks with some practical feedback for the order, which was by necessity somewhat rushed.

“This is a well-intended effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics,” she said. “That means it will disburse funds without a system for measuring outcomes or a plan for what comes after this pilot program reaches its end. Moreover, it does not focus on a specific problem in healthcare.”

Better, of course, that the money is available now and accounted for later, since we are presently in the throes of the crisis.

A second $100M program was also authorized, by which money taken from the FCC’s main budget takes a longer-term approach to engendering telehealth over the next two years. That program differs in some key ways (not covering connected devices, for one) and will play out in slower fashion but provide ongoing support.

The FCC has several ongoing efforts to “Keep Americans Connected,” as it puts it, from institutional programs like this one to extracting promises from broadband providers not to fine people for data overages or late payments. You can find a list of its work here.

FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement an tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.

FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement an tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.

Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

We must consider secure online voting

The list of states delaying primaries and elections is quickly increasing, with New Jersey adding local elections to the list. Even Congress — in a break from tradition — is rethinking what it means to vote safely in this new paradigm, stirring calls for remote voting for its upcoming legislation around the pandemic.

This debate, however, lacks important context: Many U.S. citizens are already voting online at home and abroad. In fact, 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow some voters to return absentee ballots via email, while five others permit some voters to do so using a web portal.

We are election officials in two states that require us to offer an online method to some of our voters. For these voters, the argument is not an academic one, but an issue of necessity — traditional voting methods simply don’t work for those living abroad, deployed in the military or those with disabilities. As election officials, it’s our duty to stand up for the constitutional rights of our citizens, whatever their circumstances, and the reality is that online voting dramatically improves the opportunities for these two groups to engage with our democracy.

We should not be debating whether online voting should exist, but rather asking: What is the most secure way to facilitate electronic voting? Because it’s already being done. And because it’s needed by some voting groups — whose volume might expand in the near future.

As a country, we currently have three million eligible voters living abroad, and only 7% cast ballots in the 2016 elections, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s biennial Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. This same analysis found that removing logistical barriers to voting would raise participation by 30%. A different analysis separately found that while nearly one million active-duty military are eligible to vote, only around 23% of them actually did in 2018.

The traditional system of mailed-in absentee ballots and centralized polling places is failing these voters, and they aren’t alone among the disenfranchised. The turnout story is also grim for the 35 million U.S. voters with disabilities. An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report also found widespread barriers to disabled voting, such as machines that could have made it impossible to cast votes privately. It’s no wonder that, as a 2017 Rutgers University study found, disabled voting participation has declined in each of the last two presidential elections, dropping from 57.3% in 2008 to 55.9% in 2016.

New technologies offer promise to expanding and securing access for overseas citizens and voters with disabilities. Consider MacCene Grimmett, who is, at 106, Utah’s oldest voter. When she was born in 1913, women did not have the right to vote. Homebound since she broke her ankle two years ago and unable to hold a pen steadily, she was able to cast her ballot last year thanks to an app on a mobile device. The technology empowered her, helping her execute — independently, anonymously, securely and with dignity — her most basic duty as a citizen.

Pilots and tests are happening at different scales in localities around the country, and early results are demonstrating positive outcomes. In 2019,Utah County’s offering mobile-phone voting to overseas citizens resulted in a marked increase in participation rates. In fact, turnout rates for voters using the app overseas were higher than for those who went to the polls in-person on Election Day. Oregon also successfully permitted its citizens to use app-voting in 2019.

Importantly, all pilots include the ability to rigorously audit the results so we can ensure 100% accuracy along the way.

The challenge, ultimately, is how to continue leveraging technology in a secure and innovative way to maximize access. Safety is paramount: We are deeply aware that we live in an interconnected world where foreign adversaries and other malicious entities are using information technology to try to undermine our political system. It’s our responsibility to understand the environment in which we operate as we forge ahead.

But while these concerns can be valid, they should not outweigh both the necessity and potential benefits of internet-based voting. Just as we cannot place blind faith in the infallibility of our technologies, we also cannot fall into a senseless, all-encompassing mistrust that would both disenfranchise millions of voters and shake trust in our elections.

Rather than making sweeping judgments, we need to weigh each case individually. Why, for example, should Iowa’s failure, which involved poor training, lack of testing and trouble reporting caucus results on one specific technology platform by a political party adversely affect whether a disabled Utahn or an Oregonian soldier can cast their vote — and verify it — by app?

Expanding voter participation by ensuring ballot access for all citizens is paramount to protecting our democracy. In the 21st century, that will necessarily include electronic methods, particularly as we face challenges with voters abroad and contemplate emerging challenges at home like COVID-19, where large public gatherings — and long lines — spark new threats to consider.

We must continue trials and experiments to broaden access for voters, while hardening the system and making it more resilient, and that means beginning with small-scale pilots, seeing what works, stringently auditing the results and then employing that knowledge in new rounds of testing. App-based voting, for example, is already more secure than returning a ballot by email, and it also preserves voter anonymity in a way that email makes impossible (because whoever opens the email to hand-copy the vote onto a paper ballot for tabulation knows who sent it).

These are the everyday successes that internet-based voting is producing right now. And they ought to be driving the discussion as we move forward slowly, responsibly and confidently.

Fauci: US can expect more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, millions of cases

On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, the leading U.S. authority on the COVID-19 pandemic made some grim predictions about the course of the novel coronavirus as it rages through communities within the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and emerging face of American leadership in the fight against the virus, estimated that the U.S. may see between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A deeply-respected authority on viral diseases, Fauci assisted in guiding the federal response to SARS, MERS, Ebola and now the novel coronavirus.

Fauci cautioned that these estimates are based on models and a model is only as accurate as the assumptions that go into building it. An extreme worst-case situation in which the coronavirus causes millions of American deaths remains “not impossible but very, very unlikely.”

“Whenever the models come in, they give a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario,” Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Generally, the reality is somewhere in the middle. I’ve never seen a model of the diseases that I’ve dealt with where the worst case actually came out. They always overshoot.”

Fauci believes that the U.S. is likely going to have “millions of cases” but broadly cautioned against relying on modeling estimates while still stressing the extreme risk the virus poses.

“I just don’t think that we really need to make a projection when it’s such a moving target that we could so easily be wrong and mislead people,” Fauci said. He added that outbreaks in New York, New Orleans and other areas with “serious problems” remain worrisome, indicating that the data at hand is plenty of cause for concern.

As of Sunday morning, 2,197 people in the U.S. have lost their lives fighting the virus, with 125,313 confirmed cases in the country to date according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The number of actual cases of the virus on the ground is likely substantially higher, as testing challenges continue to trouble some parts of the country and many mild or asymptomatic cases go untested.

Elizabeth Warren for President open-sources its 2020 campaign tech

Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren may have ended her 2020 presidential run, but the tech used to drive her campaign will live on.

Members of her staff announced they would make public the top apps and digital tools developed in Warren’s bid to become the Democratic nominee for president.

“In our work, we leaned heavily on open source technology — and want to contribute back to that community…[by] open-sourcing some of the most important projects of the Elizabeth Warren campaign for anyone to use,” the Warren for President Tech Team said.

In a Medium post, members of the team — including chief technology strategist Mike Conlow and chief technology officer Nikki Sutton — previewed what would be available and why.

“Our hope is that other Democratic candidates and progressive causes will use the ideas and code we developed to run stronger campaigns and help Democrats win,” the post said.

Warren’s tech team listed several of the tools they’ve turned over to the open source universe via GitHub.

One of those tools, Spoke, is a peer to peer texting app, originally developed by MoveOn, which offered the Warren Campaign high volume messaging at a fraction of the costs of other vendor options. The team used it to send four million SMS messages on Super Tuesday alone.

Pollaris is a location lookup tool with an API developed to interface directly with Warren’s official campaign website and quickly direct supporters to their correct polling stations.

One of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign app, Caucus, designed for calculating delegates. (Image: supplied)

Warren’s tech team will also open-source Switchboard (FE and BE) — which recruited and connected volunteers in primary states — and Caucus App, a delegate calculating and reporting tool.

The campaign’s Redhook tool took in web hook data in real time and experienced zero downtime.

“Our intention in open sourcing it is to demonstrate that some problems campaigns face do not require vendor tools and are solved…efficiently with a tiny bit of code,” said the Tech Team.

Elizabeth Warren ended her 2020 presidential bid on March 4 after failing to win a primary. Among her many policy proposals, the Massachusetts senator had proposed breaking up big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Her campaign will continue to share the tech tools they used on open source channels.

“We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks on all that we did with technology on our campaign,” the team said.

How Huawei is dividing Western nations

The relationship between the United Kingdom and Australia is not usually a flashpoint in international relations. After all, the two allies share a common language, ancestry, and monarch. So what caused a dustup recently that saw a senior Australian parliamentarian rebuke the British foreign secretary, and for a group of Australian MPs to then cancel a trip to London in protest?

The answer is fears over Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant at the center of the 5G next-generation wireless debate. Australian officials were miffed when the British government recommended that the company be allowed to play a limited role in the U.K.’s 5G deployment despite calling it a “high risk” supplier due to its close ties to the Chinese government (the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, served for many years as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army). The Australian government, a fellow member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (which includes the two countries plus the United States, Canada, and New Zealand), disagreed back in 2017 when it barred Huawei on national security grounds.

Now, two close allies are at cross purposes about the very future of the internet. What’s at stake is not just who equips the future of telecom infrastructure, but the very values that the internet itself holds.

Two countries, ocean(s) apart

It’s not just Australia and Britain that find themselves separated by an ocean (or two). In America, Huawei has become the Trump Administration’s favorite company to hate. In a speech at this year’s Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the company “today’s poster child” for “nefarious activity” while another White House official compared the company to “the Mafia.”  It should come as no surprise that the company is the target of trade restrictions, a criminal action against its CFO, and a concerted diplomatic campaign. 

America’s concerns are twofold. First, that critical infrastructure provided by a Chinese company with such close ties to the country’s central leadership is an unacceptable security risk. Second, that arresting Huawei’s increasing dominance risks surrendering any chance for American leadership in 5G technology.

National security considerations have predominantly driven policymakers in Australia. More alert by geography to the strategic risks posed by China, Canberra moved early and decisively to bar Huawei from participating in its 5G networks at all. “The fundamental issue is one of trust between nations in cyberspace,” writes Simeon Gilding, until recently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber missions.

That lack of trust between China and Australia is compounded by the difficult geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. and China end up in some sort of conflict,” says Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “If there was a shooting war, it is almost inevitable that the U.S. would ask Australia for assistance and then we’d be in this uncomfortable situation if we had Huawei in our networks that our critical telecommunications networks would literally be run by an adversary we were at war with.”

Gilding warned, “It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party.” And no matter what reassurances Huawei executives have given, they just simply haven’t been able to ally those concerns. Beijing didn’t help Huawei’s case when it passed its 2017 Intelligence Law, which obliges all Chinese companies and individuals to assist with intelligence efforts if asked. “People were always afraid [that might happen],” adds Uren, “and having it in writing really solidified those concerns.”

As a result, Canberra’s policy to ban Huawei has been largely uncontroversial. With the exception of some of the country’s telecom companies, “the decision [to ban Huawei] has bipartisan backing,” says Simon Jackman, CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Calling out London

American officials wish their British counterparts shared Australia’s outlook – and haven’t been shy about saying so. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UK to “relook” at the decision and lobbied Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the issue on a recent trip to London. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Esper has made clear that electing to use Huawei could threaten allies’ access to American intelligence. “If countries choose to go the Huawei route,” Mr. Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, “it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 30 January 2020 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

British officials not only believe this to be a bluff – the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is much too strong in their view – but have a different assessment of the risk Huawei poses. “Everyone’s perception of the Huawei risk is particular to them,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of MI6 now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The U.K. goes even further though. Experts in the British government, which started using Huawei in its 3G and 4G networks back in 2003, believe that not only can the risks be mitigated, but they are being overstated in the first place. “The Australian approach is driven by the kind of worst-case analysis of the risk 5G could pose in effect on the brink of war,” says Inkster. “I don’t think the U.K. envisages going to war with China any time soon.”

Inkster and other top officials remain confident in the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which was established by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) back when Huawei was first introduced into Britain’s telecom networks. “We’ve never ‘trusted’ Huawei,” wrote NCSC Technical Director Dr. Ian Levy in a January 2020 blogpost. As a result, the U.K. has “always treated them as a ‘high risk vendor’ and worked to limit their use in the UK and put extra mitigations around their equipment and services.”

Levy and the government’s other cybersecurity experts believe that their system will continue to work. “The basic cyber security measures that have been used for 3/4G also apply to 5G,” argues Marcus Willett, who also served as the first Director of Cyber at GCHQ, Britain’s signals-intelligence agency. “If Huawei had been playing games, we would have discovered it by now,” says Pauline Neville-Jones, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, and previously security minister and cybersecurity advisor in former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.

British regulations already restrict Huawei and other high-risk vendors in several ways, including capping their market share at 35% and ensuring their equipment is continuously evaluated by HCSEC. In addition, by preventing Huawei’s 5G kit from being used near sensitive sites and limiting it to the periphery of the network (as opposed to the core), British officials are confident that they can contain any additional risk.

That’s not to say Huawei doesn’t face stiff opposition from some corners. Even if you mitigated the risk, it’s “quite a leap to allow the Chinese to be intimately involved in something as sensitive as this,” one U.K. retired diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told me. And the company is no one’s first choice. “If the U.K. didn’t have Huawei in its system, it wouldn’t choose to have Huawei now,” Lady Neville-Jones told me. “But we are in a different place [than Australia] and we have set up a system which we believe enables us to manage the risk. And by God, we will be on alert. We’re not stupid. [But] you say to yourself, at the end of the day, do you trust your technical people or not? And there’s never been a complaint on backdoors or traps.” Indeed, government experts have often caught coding errors she adds. “I suspect the result of [British inspections] is that technically Huawei is a better company than it might otherwise have been.”

The British position is also rooted in game theory. “Even if you could [bring down the network], when would you do it?” asks Willett, formerly of GCHQ. “It is effectively a ‘one shot’ capability – if used by China, it would undermine the position of all Chinese companies in the world tech market. China would therefore presumably save the ‘one shot’ for war or near-war, in which case it would need to be sure it would work. That is not easy.”

Australian experts are skeptical, though. “I think [the British] are overconfident in their ability to mitigate [the risk],” Uren, the ASPI expert, told me. His view – widely shared in Australia – is that defenders always think they can defend a system until they can’t, and giving a Chinese company access to the network is already a concession too far. “Cybersecurity is all about raising the costs for the attacker,” writes Gildling, the former Australian official. “Network access through vendors — which need to be all over 5G networks to maintain their equipment — effectively reduces the access cost to zero.”

The economic equation in Europe

It’s hard to understate the difference geography makes, though. In America and Australia — Pacific powers — China is physically present. For Europeans — including Britain — the risks of a rising China don’t carry the same emotional weight.

“The idea of China being a direct security threat is still somewhat abstract,” says Dr. Janka Oertel of the European Council on Foreign Relations. With the exception of countries like Poland and Estonia which are reliant on U.S. military support and thus more willing to toe Washington’s line, “European governments have just begun to asses the risk China can pose in the cyber realm.” Partly to allay those rising concerns, Huawei about a year ago established a a Cyber Security Transparency Centre in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. Unlike Britain’s HCSEC, however, it is not an independent evaluation center and it is not designed to carry out the same functions.

Economics dominate the conversation on the continent more than national security concerns. The fragmented telecom market in Europe (105 mobile operators versus just four in America), has also proven beneficial to Huawei. In a competitive environment where cost has become everything, the state-subsidized Huawei is often able to underprice its competitors. Even in Britain, security concerns were weighed against the fact that “stripping out [the Huawei components already in the system] and starting again would carry enormous costs,” Inkster told me.

Still, Oertel thinks the debate in Europe is being debated on the wrong grounds. “It’s really hard to say Huawei is cheaper than Ericsson or Nokia. No one has the numbers because these are all contracts between private companies. We’re talking a lot of hypotheticals.” Her concern is that while Huawei might seem cheaper now, that might change if it’s able to squeeze out competitors and raise prices.

The battle isn’t over yet, though. Ericsson and Nokia maintain that they are competitive on technology and cost. Indeed, Ericsson is already running 27 5G networks in 15 countries and was just selected by the Danish government to build the country’s 5G network, displacing existing Huawei equipment. Meanwhile in Germany, the government’s move toward using Huawei has run into sharp opposition in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. Norbert Röttgen, a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party, helped draft a bill that would bar any “untrustworthy” company from “both the core and peripheral networks.”

Norbert Roettgen, CDU at the Bundespressekonferenz the occasion of the candidacy for the CDU chairmanship, on February 18, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Felix Zahn/Photothek via Getty Images)

The Trump Administration is still concerned enough about Huawei’s potential ability to dominate 5G worldwide that it is actively campaigning for a Western alternative. “We are encouraging allied and U.S. tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions,” Defense Secretary Esper said in Munich, where he also exhorted fellow security officials to “develop our own secure 5G network … so we don’t regret our decisions later.” 

Other American officials have suggested even more extraordinary measures. Declaring in a February speech that nothing less than “our economic future is at stake,” Attorney General William Barr (who also served formerly as a long-time lawyer for U.S. telecom and TechCrunch parent company Verizon) bluntly called on the U.S. and its allies to “actively consider” a proposal for the government and U.S. companies to take a controlling stake in Nokia and Ericsson. “Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a far more formidable competitor.”

Ericsson dismisses these comments. “Personally, I find it odd that Barr is even thinking like this really,” Gabriel Solomon, a senior Ericsson executive in Europe, told me. “We were first to commercial deployment in four continents. We are in a very competitive market.”

Indeed, that echoes a common view in Europe: that the goal of American policy on Huawei is less about security and more about market share – and making sure America, not China, owns the future of 5G. And that has its own risks. “Cutting out Huawei altogether potentially moves us toward a kind of bipolar, bifurcated internet, which if taken to logical extreme would have some very serious adverse implications for everyone in terms of cost, a slowdown in innovation, and general reduction in intellectual and technical interchange,” says Inkster, the former MI6 official.

Things would be easier, Europeans say, if America presented an obvious alternative. Without one, America’s allies feel they have little choice but to use Huawei if they don’t want to fall behind technologically. “The West has got itself in a mess,” says the retired British diplomat. “It is a striking failure of political cooperation and coordination that we should find ourselves in this position.”

There is still optimism on both sides of the Atlantic that a Western solution can be found. As Röttgen of Germany wrote in a tweet in February:

Rather than pick a champion, another solution would be to level the playing field. “Telecoms security doesn’t pay,” concedes Dr. Levy of HCSEC. And “externalising the security costs of particular choices (including vendor) will help operators make better security risk management decisions.” Another option: better national screening investment mechanisms that would limit the ability of state-owned enterprises to operate unfairly.

But to get there requires coordination and cooperation – and that isn’t necessarily as forthcoming as you might expect. Germans still remember that the NSA hacked Chancellor Merkel’s phone – and the Trump Administration’s trade war has targeted Europe almost as much as it has China. Röttgen cautioned that cooperation on 5G was connected: “[W]e must know that tariffs against Brussels are off the table,” he said in the same tweet. “Partners don’t threaten one another.” Meanwhile, Huawei is earning goodwill by sending medical equipment to Europe to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Technology was supposed to unite us,” laments Jackman, the Australian professor; “instead it’s driving us apart not just from our rivals, but our allies, too.”

House passes historic $2 trillion coronavirus economic rescue bill

A massive bipartisan effort to provide relief to a U.S. economy on ice just leapt over its last major hurdle. On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act, which contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill passed the House today after Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) took the unpopular step of blocking a voice vote that could House members could conduct remotely. House lawmakers quickly returned to Washington to appear in person Friday, where they spread out in the galleries above the House floor for safety. The bill passed with a quorum of more than 216 members of the House present.

“The aid must be robust, rapid and resilient, just like its recipients,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said during proceedings Friday. “We are going to help Americans through this. We are doing to do it together.”

“Whatever concerns we may have and whatever we want to do next, right now we’re going to pass this legislation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in her speech on the floor.

To get to a place of fast bipartisan consensus, the bill, shepherded by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, came together through addition rather than subtraction. The result is a sprawling 880 page piece of legislation stuffed with concessions for members of both parties—but one that can provide for Americans quickly. Here are some of the key relief measures targeted toward small businesses, big industry players and a gutted American workforce reeling from job losses.

Expanded unemployment benefits

After Democrats negotiated their own priorities into the bill, it now includes greatly boosted unemployment benefits that will reach workers usually left out in the cold. Under the new legislation, gig workers, contract workers and freelancers will be now eligible for unemployment benefits—a huge boon for anyone not employed full-time.

The bill also adds a substantial additional $600 per week on top of existing state benefits to help the jobless navigate the crisis. Nearly one in five Americans had lost work as of mid-March—a number that’s likely going up.

Those benefits will last four months, in spite of objections from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who claimed the enhanced unemployment provisions could actually give some workers more money than they were making previously, a fact he said “incentivized people not to go back to work.” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders slammed those objections in a passionate speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night.

“Somebody who’s making 12 bucks an hour now like the rest of us faces an unprecedented economic crisis with 600 bucks on top of their regular unemployment check might be making a few bucks more for four months,” Sanders said. “Oh my word, will the universe survive? How absurd and wrong is that?”

Business loans

Small businesses can expect some relief. The bill sets aside $350 billion for small business loans up to $10 million, with priority given to women-owned businesses, new businesses and those run by anyone “socially and economically disadvantaged.” A separate $10 billion in emergency small business grants of up to $10,000 is also set aside—an unprecedented measure from the Small Business Administration.

A separate $500 billion pool of money is set aside for bailing out larger businesses hurt by the crisis with emergency loans—a provision of the bill key to its Republican support. In recent days, Democrats were able to work in some oversight measures for how that money gets allocated, provisioning for an inspector general to oversee the process.

The hard-hit airline industry will receive $58 billion from that pool of money, half in loans and half in grants for worker pay. The loans come with some strings attached—to accept them, airlines will have to agree not to lay workers off through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.

The bill also sets aside $100 billion for hospitals and health providers as they struggle to meet the challenge of COVID-19 amid widespread shortages of personal protective equipment and depleted staffs.

In an effort to get companies to spend the money on workers rather than self-enrichment, the bill includes a ban on companies buying back their own stock while receiving help from the federal government and for one year afterward.

Cash payments

One of the most surprising parts of the package is the bipartisan decision to include direct cash payments to Americans, a generally strongly Democratic idea with its roots in universal basic income proposals. The stimulus will include direct cash payments of $1,200 for adults and $500 for children in a move likely to include up to 94% of all tax filers. Above an adjusted gross income of $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for couples filing jointly the payment phases out by $5 for every $100 in extra income. Single filers without children making $99,000 and couples without children making $198,000 would receive no benefit.

In spite of some Democrats pushing for recurring payments, the benefit is a one-time payout, though some in Congress expect additional payments to be discussed in the near-future bills. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t think Congress has “seen the end of direct payments.”

The payment will go directly to anyone who received a tax refund through direct deposit in recent years. For everyone else, the government will be sending a check—a process that’s expected to take longer. Some critics of the final bill wanted the direct payments to circumvent the notoriously difficult-to-navigate U.S. tax system, but this is how they ended up.


We’ll be sorting through the finer print in the coming days and looking for ways the stimulus will affect workers, startups and tech giants. To comb through yourself, the full text of the bill is embedded below.