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Year out

Katalin_Kariko.jpgSometime like five or 15 years from now, I imagine someone will look back and see that the seeds of some wonderful new technology were sown off-camera during this year and be surprised we never noticed. But the reality is that from March onwards the coronavirus swallowed up the news, challenged only - and only in the UK - by the awful crawl to Brexit.

Even the advance in AI - or what passes for it - represented by DeepMind's having solved protein folding only occupied the news for a day or so, then sank under the unrelenting sameness of watching the latest case numbers and getting by, a day at a time (and that was the *privileged* version of life in the pandemic). In retrospect, the overwhelming information technology trend was the culmination of years of rising awareness of the many adverse consequences of the things net.wars complains about: consolidation, centralization, and users' loss of privacy and autonomy.

The giant exception to both the general inattention and technological discontent was the collaborative scientific muscle on display in biotech, from the first rapid sequencing of the novel coronavirus's genome to the successful, cavalry-to-the-rescue arrival of the new mRNA vaccine platform that has been in the making for 20-odd years. In this case, the Internet delivered as promised, from enabling scientists to exchange preprint research and collaborate across the globe to giving individuals direct access to solid science, to providing a safe and necessary alternative to high-risk in-person action.

Three big technology stories did achieve traction:

- The new and aggressive push in the US to rein in the four biggest technology companies. Forty-six states, plus Guam and Washington, DC, and the Federal Trade Commission have filed antitrust suits against Facebook, which elsewhere is being described as a Doomsday Machine that may wipe out the planet. Ten states and the Department of Justice have filed suits against Google. Amazon, already subject to antitrust action in the EU surely won't be far behind. Apple, the last of the four whom Congress summoned last summer, won't escape even if it's never sued directly because the Google suit targets the $8 to $12 billion it pays Apple every year to make its search engine the default.

- The discovery that Russia has mounted a long and successful cyber attack on US federal agencies, with slowly-emerging ramifications for countries and companies all over the world.

- The speed with which both governments and industry jumped on surveillance technologies in response to the health crisis. Some of it is not bad. Wastewater epidemiology, a polite term for surveilling sewage for early warnings of virus outbreaks, isn't personal and is a longstanding public health technique, although one can conceive of unfair and intrusive implementations. Many other technologies - immunity passports, fever scanning, and contact tracing apps most obviously, but also automated facial recognition - have yet to fully take hold, but it seems likely that despite warnings about unfairness and intrusion they will be too tempting for governments to resist in the name of safety, particularly for travel. All of this will be hard to dislodge later. The UK in particular has ignored expert advice to take advantage of the person-centuries of contact tracing experience in local authorities, instead paying billions to cronies and companies like Serco. Palantir in particular appears to be embedding itself for the longer term.

Everything else is dithering.

Prominent among the dithering is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which Jeff Kosseff, the law's biographer, has explained all year on Twitter. Every content moderation discontent is being blamed on this short law limiting intermediary liability. With the antitrust suits pending and so many other crises - and with repeal-happy Donald Trump's departure from power - it's hard to believe that this law will change in 2021.

In the UK, the last-second Brexit deal leaves data protection and the online harms legislation lurking in wait.

The big lessons of this tortured year:

- Basic research can pay off in unexpected ways. As Charles Arthur has noted, the speed of the novel coronavirus's genetic sequencing was a result of the Human Genome Project, whose value at the time was purely speculative. The carrot was personalized medicine, which, with a few exceptions, has yet to fulfill its imagined promise. DNA sequencing did, however, spawn an industry of genealogical sites and services promising to use DNA for everything from finding your soul mate to predicting your medical future; I'm not a fan or either for both privacy and scientific validity reasons. But that blue-sky project is now saving both our individual lives and our civilization.

- It really is, as Bruce Schneier writes, long past time to stop imagining that "we" "good guys" deserve exceptional access to the rest of the world's computers. It. Does. Not. Work. As I keep writing, a hole is a hole. Neither the coronavirus nor the hole cares about race, wealth, class, or perceived virtue. This applies as much to the long-running battle over requiring backdoors in encryption as to a nation's broader cybersecurity. Politicians and PR people take the view that the best defense is a good offense; in this case, the best offense is a good defense.

Merry Christmas. Only one more week before 2021.

Illustrations: Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian biochemist behind the mRNA vaccines.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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