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What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

Tech loves Google and Apple’s unholy alliance


Image: Apple

Good morning! This Monday, the tech world has thoughts about Google and Apple teaming up to track coronavirus, fintech companies want in on the stimulus process, and Saturday Night Live is taking to Zoom.

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People Are Talking

Melinda Gates is happy to see businesses stepping up to fight coronavirus, but warned that's not enough:

  • "It's the responsibility of all of us. Business won't be able to solve this. There's no way business or philanthropy can solve this alone. It takes the government. It's government who puts out huge amounts of money into our healthcare system to take care of everybody, to take care of the most vulnerable. It's philanthropy and business and nonprofits coming together with government to have a national response. That is the only way we're going to be able to care for all Americans."

After weeks of cooking at home, and with grocery lines getting longer, people are starting to order out again, Takeaway.com CEO Jitse Groen said:

  • "We have seen the consumer base shift. No more office orders, a lot of new customers wanting to try it for the first time. We don't normally compete with supermarkets."

Bill Gurley wishes he'd invested in Zoom:

  • "The products of the forerunners/precursors to Zoom were 'non-optimal.' [They] were difficult to install, it was hard to initiate a meeting, & they were less intuitive. I have been surprised at how many people I know in all walks of life who have taken to the product so naturally."

The Big Story

The tech world reacts to the Google/Apple tracking tie-up

When Google and Apple jointly announced their plan to build a Bluetooth-based system into their phones that could track people's movement's and reduce the spread of coronavirus, the first thing anyone did was … debate the logo.

Kidding! (Kind of. Not really.) Mostly what the tech industry did was praise the pact, with two companies that tend to be at odds working together for an important cause.

  • "Kudos to Apple and Google for their leadership and partnership on this," Matt Cutts, the head of the U.S. Digital Service (and former Google exec) tweeted.
  • "Huge thanks to Apple and Google for building privacy-preserving contact tracing into iOS and Android," said Nat Friedman, the CEO of Github.

Quick recap on how the system works, in case you had better things to do this weekend than read technical documentation:

  • If users opt in, they'll be part of an automated contact-tracing system. Their device will use Bluetooth to keep track of which other phones have been nearby. If a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, they'd log into the system and say so — and everyone who's been near them recently would be quickly notified and advised to get tested.
  • Google and Apple are building APIs into Android and iOS that will enable a lot of the infrastructure for the system, and make sure all phones can share information.
  • But they're not building the apps — there are apps "from public health authorities" coming in May, one of which the Sunday Times said is Britain's NHS. Others will be able to tap into the APIs later.

Friday's announcement was the beginning of the project, not the end. Plenty of questions remain, including a couple of big ones:

  • First of all, will anyone use it? Contact tracing only works if it's ubiquitous. At first, users will have to download apps to be part of the system, but as the tech gets baked into devices it may be as simple as saying yes to a pop-up on your phone.
  • Second, uh, privacy? Apple and Google laid out some of the technical documentation behind the plan, which relies heavily on frequently-changing Bluetooth IDs and several levels of encrypted identifiers.

Even with lots of details left to figure out, the overwhelming reaction was that Google and Apple are on the right path. But not everyone is convinced. Moxie Marlinspike, the security researcher and Signal creator, pointed out that as soon as a user tests positive, all their supposedly private, constantly changing IDs suddenly become linkable.

  • "At that point adtech (at minimum) probably knows who you are, where you've been, and that you are COVID+," he said. And that wasn't his only issue with the system.
  • Former FTC CTO Ashkan Soltani said the system could lead to lots of false positives (Bluetooth connections through walls) and false negatives (you don't bring your phone to the door to pick up a pizza). He also worried about the potential for abuse, since there's nothing stopping a user from saying, just to cause chaos, "I was infected!"

If Apple and Google get this right, the scale is enormous: Bloomberg pointed out that Android and iOS have about 3 billion users between them. And clearly the rest of the tech world is ready to help the companies get it right.

Encryption

A startup's extra private take on virus tracking

Obviously, Google and Apple aren't the only companies sensing a duty and an opportunity to solve the "tracking everyone but in a private way" problem. Protocol's Matt Drange wrote about one, TripleBlind, that's both ambitious in its plans and convinced it can do it more securely than anyone.

  • TripleBlind is working most prominently with MIT, whose Private Kit app we've mentioned before. It's being adopted by governments across the U.S. to track the virus. The company's also talking with governments and hospitals around the world.
  • Matt told me the key tech for TripleBlind is "a niche type of encryption called 'secure multiparty computation,' which DARPA has been watching/studying for years and basically means bringing together information from multiple parties to run analysis on that information (think something as simple as calculating an average, for example), but doing it in such a way that no one party has all the information." Basically, everyone comes to the table — but nobody has to fully trust anybody else.

Like everyone else, TripleBlind is moving extremely fast, and it's dealing with the same tradeoffs as everyone. How to get people to opt in; whether to use Bluetooth or GPS to track them; when it makes sense to actually alert someone and encourage them to get tested. Some critics also told Matt that TripleBlind and MIT aren't being transparent enough about how the tech works.

  • If TripleBlind can figure it out, the company plans to bring its brand of private data analysis to lots of other industries. "We're trying to take the friction out of interacting algorithms and data," said co-founder Greg Storm. "Anywhere with privacy regulations — HIPAA, California's Consumer Privacy Act, and the GDPR in Europe — we're making it easier to do business."

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Facebook

We know it's a challenging time for small businesses.
To help, Facebook created a $100 million Small Business Grants Program to provide businesses with the resources they need.

Learn more about the Facebook Small Business Grants Program.

Stimulus

Fintech seeks to speed up the stimulus

A lot of people would like their $1,200 stimulus check. A lot of small businesses need loans. And everybody needs it ASAP. Sure, the IRS says it's building a website that'll help people track their checks, but a bunch of fintech companies want to prove they can help make it happen faster:

  • Square is turning to a little-known feature of Cash App. Since users can get an account and routing number for their Cash App account, they can just give that information to the IRS. Square — which, you'll remember, recently got FDIC approval for many more real-bank features — is particularly interested in serving those who don't already have bank accounts.
  • We talked last week about Chime's pilot project, which amounted to just giving people money. Now it's offering 100,000 customers an advance on their check.
  • Intuit's QuickBooks was approved as a PPP lender, and plans to start accepting small-business-relief loans this week. Intuit's big advantage: It can automate most of the process for small businesses already using QuickBooks.
  • PayPal is offering the same loans, and said it started disbursing money to applicants on Thursday.
  • And, of course, there's the chorus of people on Twitter responding to all this information with: "JUST BUY BITCOIN." So there's that.

Coming This Week

The virtual ODSC conference, a timely deep-dive into all things data science, starts Monday. Free passes are available for people working on coronavirus-related projects.

Axios is hosting a virtual event Wednesday with Andrew Yang on the future of fintech and privacy.

No Virtual Meetup from us this week, but I'm hosting one a week from Thursday — more on that in a few days.

In Other News 

  • Today in coronavirus: Sam Altman started a project to crowdfund the purchase of a billion masks. Instacart doubled its customer-support team to keep up with growing demand. Uber will now offer sick leave even to those with pre-existing conditions. Amazon promised to keep paying anyone quarantined by a doctor, but its actual policies are murkier.
  • Singapore banned teachers from using Zoom after a series of "very serious incidents" that are as obscene and upsetting as you're thinking.
  • Martin Scorsese may be taking another big-budget movie streaming. His $200 million take on David Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" has gotten too expensive for his studio partners, the Wall Street Journal reports. The last time this happened, "The Irishman" went to Netflix — but now Apple may also be looking for a big-budget flick on Apple TV+.
  • Reddit is experimenting with a Community Points system for rewarding good user behavior on the site, based on Ethereum's blockchain tech. It's not quite a Reddit-approved cryptocurrency, but it's not far off.
  • Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris introduced a bill that aims to make price-gouging illegal during national emergencies. It would ban any increase over 10%, and would put the onus for compliance on individual sellers, not huge platforms.
  • Instagram now lets users watch live broadcasts on the web. This is a big deal: Live has already become a big part of Instagram, but it required being in the app. With DMs also coming to the web, Instagram's clearly making a big bet on the desktop.

One More Thing

'Live from Zoom, it's sometime between March and August'

That's how Saturday Night Live kicked off over the weekend — and even if you're not typically a SNL viewer, this episode's worth going back to. Partly because it's funny and inventive, but mostly because we've all tried making jokes to our webcams over the last few weeks, and it's comforting to know even the pros are terrible at it sometimes. Start with the post-quarantine dating show and the RBG home workout, cringe through … whatever this one is … and make sure you bring tissues for the musical numbers.

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Facebook

We know it's a challenging time for small businesses.

Learn more about Facebook's $100 million Small Business Grants Program.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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