The weirdness began on Friday night, when President Trump announced that Google would soon launch a nationwide website that would guide people through the process of deciding whether they should be tested for Covid-19, and then direct them to a testing site in their area.
That statement, delivered on its own, might have been taken as just another off-the-cuff bullshit claim by a president notorious for off-the-cuff, bullshit claims. Google itself had presented no corroborating press release or statement, let alone a landing page. But only minutes later, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, held up a card that purported to outline the process through which the alleged website would take curious potential patients.
Potential patients were supposed to “log in” (reasons for logging in were unclear) to the “screening site.” People with no symptoms, the chart showed, would be directed to avoid the test. Why a person would even go to the site without symptoms is also unclear. If, however, the person had symptoms, the chart would walk them through a series of steps: “Drive through”; “Labs”; and “Results.” The chart was so silly, so comical, so useless, it’s astounding that the crowd of reporters did not break into laughter right there on the White House lawn.
Some of us did break into laughter. Technology reporters quickly filled Twitter with questions about the alleged website. For hours, Google said nothing. Later that day, Alphabet, Google’s holding company, announced that one of its subsidiaries—a medical-tech firm called Verily—was developing a limited pilot for a tool that might help direct patients in the San Francisco Bay Area. There were no immediate plans to roll it out on a national scale.
The whole mess started because the president’s bumbling son-in-law, well-rested after bringing peace to the Middle East (finally), took on the task of getting the private sector fired up to help fight the pandemic. One of Jared Kushner’s conversations was with the CEO of Verily, whom he knew from some foray or another into the tech world. By the time Kushner’s report about this limited test reached Trump and the White House communications team, it had been inflated into a full, national website that would be up “very fast.”
Now, of course, Google is scrambling to offer something so the president—who claimed over the weekend that his claims had been “substantiated”—does not look like even more of a fool. Why that’s Google’s business remains a mystery. So, too, does the question of why a special-ops team like Verily would need to be involved in creating a service as basic as the one that Trump described.
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Verily is one of Alphabet’s “blue sky” projects, devoted to deploying massive data sets and processing power to speed and improve the clinical trial process for potential medical treatments. Verily pursues sensitive, methodical projects with advanced engineering. It does not produce information for public use. That’s not Verily’s role. That’s Google’s role.
The process of determining whether a person should seek a test, and then directing that person to a local clinic or testing facility, does not require a fresh, sparkly, data-rich, complex system. It certainly should not be a separate site when most people go to Google Search for information.
Google could do this on its Search page, if it wanted to. It could probably get such a service built in 72 hours in English and for the United States. It might take some weeks to serve the whole world, but that’s not beyond Google’s reach. It should not take one of Alphabet’s “moonshot” companies to do this work.
In a blog post yesterday, Verily gave at least a hint about its goals. The screening service would rely on what the company calls “Project Baseline,” its platform for collecting and storing personal health information in a way that purports to safeguard individual privacy. The safeguard is merely a promise to seek permission before sharing data beyond the company. It’s unclear whether permission would be opt-in or opt-out, and such defaults matter immensely. This seems to be planned as a US-only service, thus avoiding having to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union.
Still, why hasn’t Google, rather than Verily, taken the initiative to provide better information sooner, with no intrusive demands to register and upload personal data? Perhaps it’s because Alphabet wants Verily to hoover up sensitive data from millions of Americans. Meanwhile, Google is of little help.
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Right now when I go to Google and ask “Should I get tested for coronavirus?” I get a set of links. The first is a story from NBC News that walks people through their symptoms to reach an answer. The rest of the results aren’t that useful.
When I ask “Where can I get tested for Coronavirus?” the output is just as bad. I’m logged into Google, so the service knows my location and search history. Still, the top result is a link to a page at the Centers for Disease Control that does no one any good at all, as it only lists which states are “currently testing” (all of them) and how many specimens have been tested overall (not nearly enough); and even those data are days out of date. The fact that Google results show no geographic specificity is strange. Google is great at personalizing and localizing shopping. Why not health screening, too?
When I search “Where can I get tacos?” I get a dozen helpful links to various taquerias in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are even plotted on a map so I can easily send directions to my phone. Bravo, Google. Even during a global pandemic and economic collapse I can find tacos, thanks to your service.
So why didn’t Google make it easy to find relevant, localized coronavirus information weeks ago, when it might have helped the most? No one knows. And Google is not saying.
Again, producing a service that walks people through the question of whether to get tested and where is not difficult. Sites like this exist already, but they’re not run by a company with a direct line to Jared Kushner. Instead, Trump promised an imaginary service and continued to lie about it for days.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this story is the outsized role that Google plays in the public imagination. As we watch the wave of a pandemic crest over the United States, threatening to overwhelm the health care system as it has in Iran and Italy, we find ourselves failing as a society. Bars fill and elected officials boast about shopping and dining in public, even as public health experts plead with Americans to stay at home. It’s crucial at this moment that we heed the policies and messaging from public health experts. Yet we seem to have just one remaining widely trusted source of information: Google.
For nearly 20 years Google has consistently appeared near the top of the list of companies Americans respect the most. A 2020 survey by the SEO company Path Interactive showed that among American respondents, 51 percent of respondents indicated that they “very frequently” or “often” make important life decisions based on Google information. Thirty-nine percent do the same for important legal decisions, and 46 percent for important medical decisions. Only 13 percent of respondents indicated that they never drew on Google in these contexts.
Annual surveys of institutional trust conducted by Edelman, a consulting service, showed in 2016 that people have more trust in the news links and summaries that Google revealed to them than in the original sources of those same news stories. By 2020 that gap had closed, with the reputation of news sources once again matching the reputation of search results. But overall, trust in institutions like government, nongovernmental organizations, and media remains low, while Google’s perceived credibility stays very high.
We can’t get distracted by shiny tech projects when direct simplicity will do. Google is a company, with the self-interest of a company. Its mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It does not do that. It does not come close. It’s a data-hungry advertising company, first and foremost. It’s an instrument of massive surveillance and our dependence on it distorts our judgements and directs major decisions without deep human deliberation or contemplation.
Observers like myself are reminded of one of the company’s most notorious failures, Google Flu Trends. It was supposed to give health officials early warning when clusters of people in a region began searching for terms associated with flu symptoms. At first, in 2008, it appeared that Google could anticipate outbreaks well before the CDC, which relied on phoned-in reports from hospitals. Over time, however, that advantage disappeared from the data. During the 2013 flu season, Google Flu Trends failed spectacularly. The problem, some leading data scientists declared, was “data hubris.”
If Google were to build a simple system into Search that guides people to testing when they need it—whether they log in to Google or not—it could do some good. But it won’t address any of the core problems we face in this crisis, including the lack of tests, medical supplies, and hospital beds. It should worry us that a personal-data-intensive wing of Alphabet, Verily, is leading this effort. Verily is committed to accumulating personal medical data for the purposes of improving Verily, not informing the public.
It’s revealing that Trump, at his moment of desperation, with stocks falling faster than even public confidence in his ability to lead, felt he had to invoke the magic word of “Google.” He seems to be throwing lots of companies and ideas out into the void, hoping something will spark confidence. But he landed on a familiar notion: Google alone can fix it. He seems to think that’s really true. And we tend to believe it, too.
What such a service can do, even on a good day, is limited. The coronavirus threat is not a computational problem. It’s a massive policy and public-health problem. Traditional and dependable sources of health information have been very good these past few weeks. It’s not clear we need Google or Verily to do anything fancy, complex, and sophisticated right now. We just need to know where we can get tested—and maybe some take-out tacos, too.
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