Healthcare Gets a Dose of Open-Source, But Will It Cure Coronavirus?
The rise of open-source projects in the blockchain technology sector has been a wake up to the alternative: A mass surveillance state once the Coronavirus has been curbed.
- The Coronavirus is spreading around the world very quickly, giving centralized data tracking services more leverage to quickly implement their technologies.
- To match both the spread of the pandemic and the threat of a surveillance state, many open-source crypto projects are stepping in.
- Though society is pressed for time, rushing into a poor implementation may have many risks far down the line.
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The crypto and open-source community have been working hard to stamp out the spread of Coronavirus. These healthcare efforts have been manifested in several initiatives from ethical tracking measures, 3D printing schematics, and crypto-based charity campaigns.
It’s not just the virus they’re fighting either.
Projects are racing against both time and other profiteers looking to turn society into an Orwellian surveillance state.
Insofar as the novel Coronavirus has touched nearly every corner of the planet, solving this problem demands cooperation from every affected country. So far, this has been no easy task.
Failing to collaborate has also had deadly consequences.
As one country moves into lockdown, another remains open, undeterred by the rapid spread of the virus. In Europe alone, the lack of coordination across the continent has made containing the illness near impossible.
The problem is multi-tiered. It hinges on first gathering accurate information about how governments should effectively respond. This means syncing with medical professionals as well as other jurisdictions that may be in the throes of the pandemic.
After that, the implementation of these best practices must be swift and all-encompassing. If one region in a country fails to move in tandem with the rest of the nation, the virus will have little issue passing through towns and cities.
Finally, one must ensure that these measures are implemented as ethically as possible. Many in the crypto community worry that governments may use the pandemic to implement even stricter surveillance mechanisms.
If the coronavirus goes pandemic, and it seems it may, the extreme edge case becomes the new normal.
It’s every debate we’ve had on surveillance, deplatforming, centralization — accelerated.
Pandemic means emergency powers for the state, even more than terrorism or crime.
— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) February 3, 2020
China has been the epicenter of both the Coronavirus as well as some of the most stringent surveillance mechanisms in the world.
The government has also taken advantage of the pandemic to include a handful of new measures. These include tracking bracelets and a color-coding system that identifies infected individuals via their WeChat or Alipay applications.
The United States government has also tinkered with similar implementations. Donald Trump reportedly sought advice from various telecommunications and technology companies about monitoring the virus’s outbreak. Google’s tracking system has naturally been front of mind.
In a memo shared with The Washington Post, Google said that health officials could “determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps.”
In the United Kingdom, a much different, more controversial company is helping the government with its tracking needs. The National Health Service (NHS), has tapped Peter Thiel’s Palantir Technologies, a private Big Data analytics firm, to create a platform for tracking ventilators and other critical hospital supplies.
Thiel’s company has made headlines for a variety of controversies, including a partnership with the American Immigration Services as well as the company’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This track record has made many reluctant to charge the company with an entire country’s surveillance wishes.
Meanwhile, Coronavirus cases continue to rise throughout the world. And herein lies the actual dynamic at play: What the world exchanges for a quick fix to a major issue may be fundamental privacy rights.
How often have governments retracted emergency measures after the emergency has been resolved?
Slow and Steady: The Open-Source Philosophy
Ethan Buchman heads Informal Systems Inc., a unique spin-off from Cosmos’s Interchain Foundation. It’s made up of researchers, developers, and thinkers in the field of distributed computing and systems verification.
“We have so far been writing formal specifications for the Cosmos protocol,” said Buchman in an interview with Crypto Briefing. “Part of that process has also meant re-implementing Cosmos in Rust. At the moment, it’s almost entirely in Go.”
At first glance, Informal’s ambitions appear like jargon with little to no bearing on global pandemics. A closer look, however, reveals a refreshing philosophy to solving coordination dilemmas.
Because of the proximity to Cosmos, as well as the nascence of the project, Cosmos is currently Informal System’s sole client.
But that doesn’t mean that distributed systems, blockchain or global pandemics, can’t benefit from Informal System’s ambitions. “There are good and bad sides to software,” said Buchman. “They can offer us new ways to coordinate and, in the best cases, improve our quality of life.”
As mentioned earlier, Google has provided humanity with immense benefits. Unfortunately, says Buchman, the dark side of these benefits has been hard to foresee. Part of this also has to do with the speed at which systems were implemented. Moving fast and breaking things is finally catching up to us.
This is in part where Informal Systems is working—the slow implementation of large scale networks.
“We have already seen that network effects have a downside. When it comes to companies like Facebook, for instance, we never thought to question who owns the data or software. But that’s mostly because it can take a while for people to realize the effects of a technology. Usually, this realization happens long after it has been implemented,” said Buchman.
In essence, Informal System is a team of software auditors working to identify and avoid any “totalitarian potentialities” that may arise in blockchain technology, according to Buchman. For now, it’s focus is on Cosmos.
Still, an open-source and safety-first philosophy could be applied to any organization.
Naturally, striking such a balance between solving immediate problems and protecting users’ privacy is a difficult task.
For many, though, this is the only worthy pursuit in the age of Corona.
biggest long term Corona danger (other than loss of life & financial) is that the measure govs unleash to mitigate & contain Covid will spin off a surveillance society that enables the worst companies to track us even more (palantir, FB, etc.) thus defying the social contract
— Maya Zehavi – stay the f home (@mayazi) March 27, 2020
Blockchain-Based Solutions to Coronavirus
The crypto community is hugely aware of the importance of privacy. This awareness has been one of the primary motivators for projects working in the Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) and data privacy sectors.
And as controversial counterparties like Palantir enter the playing field, many projects have shifted into high gear.
The Decentralized AI Alliance (DAIA) launched the COVIDathon to help fast-track projects working on data privacy, information tools, medicine, and open innovation.
The organizers include DAIA, Singularity Net, Ocean Protocol as well as tech partners from around the blockchain space. Although COVID-19 is the primary focus, the event is focused on creating “intelligent decentralized tools to combat COVID-19 and to reduce risks from future infectious outbreaks.”
The co-founder of Ocean Protocol, Bruce Pon, told Crypto Briefing in an email that:
“COVIDathon has started with the best of intentions, based on grassroots initiative. It complements national and international efforts. Ideally, the result of COVIDathon is a set of detection, testing, diagnostic and treatment tools that protect peoples’ privacy, and serve as a contrast to many centralized ‘Big Brother’ type measures that are now being put into place.”
Last month, the German government launched the #WirVsVirus hackathon looking to develop a suite of tech-based community responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. The event One product of this event included Spherity’s digitized prescription prototype.
It allows patients to securely, privately, and efficiently order any critical medicines they may need.
The CEO of Spherity, Carsten Stöcker, said:
“Our project was inspired by my mother, who didn’t want to go to an overcrowded doctor’s office just to renew a pharmaceutical prescription.”
Beyond hackathons, the open-source crypto community has also gathered around Gitcoin and the work of The Giving Block to collect crypto-based donations. Participants can donate the stablecoin Dai to a variety of causes, from the so-called “Victory Soap” to Red Cross Italy. All donations until Apr. 10 will be matched too.
PSA: Gitcoin Grants Round 5 will be extended to 12PM ET on 4/10. We’ve been blown away by the (again, record breaking) support thus far.
— Gitcoin (@gitcoin) April 6, 2020
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly every blockchain project worth its transaction fee has launched some form of hackathon.
Although some of these initiatives aren’t truly open-source, they rely on the decentralized goodwill of doers and thinkers. And even those without a strong programming background, are offered venues to help.
So, whatever you call these initiatives, they appear more amiable than centralized profiteers looking to turn a dollar from a crisis.