CIA Spin-off Assists Effort to Lock Down COVID-19
These are desperate times. A global pandemic is unmooring economies and ravaging healthcare systems. Calls for desperate measures are rising.
On Tuesday, the White House coronavirus task force warned that as many as 240,000 Americans might die of COVID-19 complications. To fight back, coordinators proposed 30-day voluntary social distancing and the shuttering of all businesses deemed non-essential.
The idea that extreme situations can only be resolved with equally extreme reactions isn’t new. It comes from the medical axiom that desperate diseases must have desperate remedies. When the patient’s condition is dire, doctors often feel compelled to explore extreme treatments.
However, sometimes an experimental drug may be as dangerous as the disease itself.
With that in mind, closing the economy for another 30 days is a bitter pill. Many businesses now operate with “just in time” business models. As the New York Times notes, these businesses are already taking a huge hit from the weakness in the global economy. Further disruption to their supply chains will leave them unable to pay their rent, make payroll and finance operations.
For example, oil and gas companies were dealing with lower energy prices before the pandemic. In late January, crude oil was trading at around $52 a barrel. Now, they’re being hit with decreased demand from shuttered businesses across the country and prices have plummeted to nearly $21 a barrel.
While this desperate measure is hurting businesses, other options on the table would do the exact opposite for companies who can lead the way.
The winners that are beginning to emerge are ones that collect and analyze massive amounts of data. In the eye of the COVID-19 storm, these businesses perform three vital functions:
1) They are helping governments track resources
2) They are building software tools to measure healthcare provider efficiencies.
3) They are tracking the ill and their contacts from state to state, county to county.
The United States’ closures are not too different from what happened in China. In the wake COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the authoritarian government imposed draconian guidelines on the movement of all 1.3 billion citizens.
A fascinating Tech in Asia story explains how travelers were automatically placed under strict quarantine. They are required to sign documents, provide face scans, record their temperatures and log-in daily to a smartphone app that tracks all pertinent data.
Related Post: Startup Maps the Health of a Worried Nation
Each day, cloud-based software updates their status, which corresponds to a color QR code. When the code turns green, they are free to leave their housing compound. However, the color might revert to yellow, or even red, if they travel to a known hotspot. The color could also change if they come in contact with a known carrier of the coronavirus.
In the privacy-conscious west, this may all seem a bit dystopian. But the pieces are falling into place for most of this to happen here as well.
Last week. staff at the Centers for Disease Control began using a cloud-based application built by Palantir. Business Insider reported the software will allow the government to compile anonymized information from hospitals and healthcare providers to track lab tests, bed capacity, ventilators and overall efficiency.
Unfortunately, that is only half of the story.
Palantir was originally funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. The secretive data cruncher gained fame for helping the CIA find and track Osama bin Laden. Later, Palantir helped the feds locate Mexican drug cartel members who murdered an American customs agent.
According to a Forbes story, Palantir is a combination of Big Brother and Big Data. It’s Google-level engineering applied directly to government spying.
Now, that prowess is coming to the fight against COVID-19. At least for now, all the personal data gathered will be anonymized. However, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the CDC is already trying to track the movements of Americans using cell phone data. The stated goal is to obtain location data for up to 500 cities in order to stem the spread of COVID-19.
It’s a desperate measure that may seem well worth the risk. Citizens potentially carrying a deadly disease pose a clear and present danger to the population at large. While we can debate if this surveillance is wise, it’s likely this tracking is coming.
Palantir is still a private company. The way for investors to play this trend is Amazon.com (AMZN) and Oracle (ORCL).
Amazon.com is the cloud infrastructure company of choice for 32% of all enterprise and government clients. Its Amazon Web Services underpins Palantir.
Oracle, meanwhile, is the world’s largest database company. Although its legacy business is under attack from AWS, the company is re-inventing itself with a transition to the cloud and government projects.
The moral of the story here is that Chinese-level surveillance isn’t very far from our current reality. And the companies that can provide that cloud-based software will end up on top as those desperate measures are considered to keep the country safe.
Jon D. Markman