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Technology vs. Covid-19: Assessing the Threats

This piece was originally published in The New York Times, and it focuses on Colombe Cahen-Salvador's and my participation in the Athens Democracy Forum. Click here to read the original piece.

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.

ATHENS — The coronavirus pandemic is not just menacing the lives and livelihoods of billions: It could also be paving the way for the global giants of technology to harvest ever higher quantities of data from humankind.

That was one of the stark takeaways from the Athens Democracy Forum — an annual gathering of political and business leaders, thinkers and activists held in association with The New York Times. Because of virus-related travel and crowd restrictions, this year’s forum on global politics was a hybrid, with some speakers physically present in Greece and others participating remotely in livestreamed sessions that drew as many as tens of thousands of viewers.

The event’s chief predictor of doom was Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and best-selling author. Seated on the rooftop of an Athens hotel with his back to the Parthenon — the symbol of Athenian democracy — he had a lively exchange with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“My greatest fear is that, when people look back in 40 years or 50 years at the Covid crisis, they will not remember the masks, they will not remember the virus: They will remember that this was the time when surveillance really took over. This was the time when democracy failed and authoritarian regimes took over,” Mr. Harari warned. “It’s still in our power to prevent this from happening, but that’s the main fear.”

“There is a lot of talk of hacking computers and smartphones and bank accounts, but the really big revolution we are living through is the emerging ability to hack people,” he added. “If you have enough data on a person and you have enough computing power, you can hack that person” and “completely manipulate them.”

In his tirade against tech, Mr. Harari found an unexpected ally: Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, who was also present in Athens, and whose company was found guilty two decades ago of violating U.S. antitrust law but now enjoys a gentler image than rivals such as Google, Facebook and Apple, which are viewed by some as quasi-monopolies that often infringe on individual privacy.

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