Capital is one of big tech's greatest assets — and now is the time to flaunt it.
In Silicon Valley, genius evolves from home garages to $482 billion state economic contributions. The technology industry accounts for nearly one-fifth of California's overall economy.
But the cost of good faith in the tech industry has another side: What's morally commendable now could cost a lot more in the future.
Vendors that rushed to offer free or extended services could spoil a customer's experience if the assistance is botched or underwhelming, ultimately costing them a future paid user. Good intentions could temporarily displace big tech's most pressing concerns, such as data privacy.
"The need to run a business and the need to be ethical may end up clashing in the future," Mike Hicks, CMO of Igloo Software, told CIO Dive.
While the U.S. copes with a national health crisis, big tech is leveraging an arsenal of seemingly endless resources:
- Tech companies are donating millions to the coronavirus response, including $15 million from Apple and $800 million from Alphabet.
- Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM's cloud segments joined academics and federal agencies for the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium. The cloud vendors are providing advanced computing resources to accelerate vaccine-related research.
- Alphabet launched a screening website for the new coronavirus in partnership with Verily for tracking and preventing the spread of infectious disease.
- Microsoft and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention partnered to offer a healthcare chatbot for assessing symptoms and risk considerations.
- Facebook, Microsoft, Slack and Pinterest are among the tech companies linked with the World Health Organization for a COVID-19 Global Hackathon.
- IBM and The Weather Channel launched an AI-enabled dashboard for tracking the coronavirus.
While technology is more critical than ever before, is the tech industry obligated to help during a crisis? It depends on their stakeholders.
"Companies that have spent considerable resources to win the public's trust could breach that trust depending on how they act," Abinash Tripathy, CEO and founder of Helpshift, told CIO Dive.
To do right by stakeholders requires upholding company or industry values even when a crisis rushes decisions.
Technologies that worked to prove their worth for years are "suddenly and urgently being recognized," such as Zoom and Facebook, said Tripathy. These companies that are now working overtime "were seeing only mild interest a few weeks ago are suddenly critical."
As companies extend their capital and talent, tech has to be careful not to displace longstanding industry concerns or risk offering services that don't live up to expectations.
Trial and error
As budgets on IT and hiring suddenly freeze across industries, vendors are trying to meet their customers (and their infrastructure) where they stalled. Headed toward a recession, companies need solutions they can adopt in a pinch and without a heavy investment.
"I don't want [customers] to feel like I'm taking advantage of them, or the situation," Jon Gacek, head of government, legal and compliance at Veritone, told CIO Dive. The AI company is taking a strategic approach with what it's offering customers and if it's giving them a fair trial for future purchase.
Veritone is one of the vendors lending free services to disrupted industries during the outbreak, specifically law enforcement. But it's business as usual. The company is trying to get people to think differently about how work is traditionally done.
"I don't want [customers] to feel like I'm taking advantage of them, or the situation."
head of government, legal and compliance at Veritone
"You've got this new situation for all of us, right?" said Gacek. It's a business opportunity to accelerate a change in people's thinking "by giving them access to these tools at a time when, you know, things are different."
People are likely to find multiple use cases out of free trials or technology they already pay for. Gacek, while speaking with Microsoft's head of public safety, told him the uptick in Microsoft Teams usage were existing customers. He said customers already paid for the Office suite Teams was bundled in, they just weren't using the application before now.
While some companies are better positioned to take a risk and offer more services, others may not have thought it through, according to Hicks. If a rushed free service doesn't live up to customer expectations, customers who tried the offering won't pay for it when the economy bounces back.
Putting concerns on hold
Vendors can alienate customers in a variety of ways. Particularly in the software market, vendors will drum up ways "to do something somehow related to this crisis," said Hicks. "That's where you run into some unexpected behavior."
Alphabet, the parent company to Google, is betting on consumer data to respond to the health crisis with inadequate privacy protections. The company's coronavirus assistance could further jeopardize its already-flawed data privacy practices.
Alphabet's subsidiary Verily is a medical research company that builds "the data infrastructure and tools to organize and understand new information streams in the context of more traditional healthcare data," according to Verily. It's rooted in the collection of consumer data.
Verily's Project Baseline was intended to match patients with medical providers; the coronavirus reimagined the platform's use case. The online screen test helps determine whether a participant can qualify for a physical coronavirus test.
"For the most part there is a genuine human desire here to try to help," said Hicks. However, "I think there's been a lot of stretched use cases for how to leverage somebody's technology."
Tech companies offering assistance in the coronavirus response have to do it strategically. If a company, such as Verily, needs consumer data to work, privacy policies have to explicitly outline the information they actually need.
"Companies that have spent considerable resources to win the public's trust could breach that trust depending on how they act."
CEO and founder of Helpshift
The consumer information Google might be curious about isn't the same data Verily needs to perform its screening. The line between what consumer data a company is curious about versus what patient data their platforms actually needs to know is blurred. "As an industry we need to make sure we're limiting information disclosure only to the extent necessary to protect public health," Jeff Hudesman, VP and head of information security at DailyPay, told CIO Dive.
Google has a tendency to get in trouble for failing to find that balance. Google received the first "game changing" fine of the GDPR era in January 2019, in part, for vague data collection reasonings.
While Google had to clarify the test's availability was limited to the Bay Area, it's difficult to ignore the privacy implications of Google's involvement.
Verily requires users to hold a Google account before participating in the online test. "Verily is a separate company from Google, and we use Google’s infrastructure to ensure safe encryption and protection of health information," according to the company.
However, the company fails to explain why users can't use other methods of identification to access testing, wrote Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.