Coronavirus crisis

Technology winners and losers in the days of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing just where our technology is up to the challenge and where it's failing.

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Coronavirus crisis

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Who knew a few months ago that we'd be working from home? Or, dealing with sluggish unemployment systems written in 60-year old COBOL? Or, spending all day watching streaming TV because you're literally stuck at home pretty much 24x7? Welcome to life with the coronavirus pandemic.

Someday soon, but not as soon as you hope, we can start returning to life as normal. Or, well, the new normal anyway. In the meantime, we've been finding out the hard way what technologies work well when subjected to a real-world disaster and which, well, aren't up to snuff.

Technology losers

Privacy

To deal with coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said, "we have the capability of mobilizing identification — testing — identification, isolation, contact tracing" to get a grip on COVID-19.

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That's all well and good but there are two parts of that — identification and contact tracing — are problematic. For example, South Korea tracked those who were sick with the virus by their cell phones without their permission or knowledge. The Lombardy, Italy regional government tracked people's location data to see if people were obeying a government lockdown order.

Contact tracing is just what it sounds like. It tracks who you've been in contact with, physically close enough, to have potentially caught the virus. South Korea and Singapore have used this technique to monitor potential COVID-19 victims. Now Apple and Google are bringing coronavirus contact tracing to the United States via our iPhones and Android smartphones.

It's a long way from contact tracing work to applications, but these apps will come. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) worries though that while "We face an unprecedented pandemic [and] this gives urgency to proximity app projects, we must also remember that this crisis will end, but new tracking technologies tend to stick around."

[ Related: 8 tips for managing a remote workforce ]

This kind of tracking isn't new. After all, Fitbit and Pokemon Go already track where you are and with that data it doesn't take rocket-science to figure out who you've been close to. That said, it would be all too easy to go from contact tracing for health reasons to contact tracking for political purposes.

In other countries for better or worse, people resist these snoopy technologies. For instance, only 1 in 6 people in Singapore have installed the country's TraceTogether app.

Of course, older surveillance technologies are also being repurposed to keep an eye on us. For example, Chinese authorities in Wuhan used smart phone's location data to track people down and have them ordered into quarantine. Facial scanning security companies, such as Telpo, have added temperature-sensing to the technology's bag of tricks so people with fevers can be spotted on the street.

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Yes, these technologies can help track down and close out the virus, indeed, they're necessary. That said, in the long run it's very hard putting the surveillance genie back into the bottle once it's been unleashed.

[ Related: How the coronavirus is changing tech and 5 things to do about it ]

Government IT systems

Who'd thought in 2020, we'd be dealing with antique programs running on COBOL? Welcome to life with the coronavirus.

It turns out the many state unemployment and IRS programs are written in COBOL. And, guess what? Their developers never, ever expected to be coping with millions of unemployment claims or having the President insist his signature appear on new checks.

For example, New York has 345,246 unemployment claims from March 29 to April 4. That's a 2,639.4 percent increase from the same period a year ago. Neither the old code nor the older mainframes it ran on could cope with the load.

While COBOL gets the blame, it's not COBOL's fault, state and federal IT departments have been underfunded for a generation. For example, the IRS main software "Master File" dates back to 1962. Just adding something as simple as a new field for Donald Trump's signature requires changing hand-coded programs by COBOL developers, who were as hard to find as toilet paper on the first days of the COVID-19 panic. 

It's not just old mainframe COBOL programs though, if you need unemployment benefits in Washington DC, for a time the site required you use Internet Explorer (IE) — IE was retired five years ago.

The problem behind the problem is simple, government IT departments have been cut over and over again, they operate on a shoestring. When you ask a shoestring to do a chain's job, it breaks.

In other cases, IT programs were designed to push a specific political agenda. In Florida, the Republican administration deliberately designed its unemployment system to lower the state’s reported number of jobless claims rather than efficiently process them. When faced with COVID-19 levels of unemployment, it failed catastrophically.

Designing software, which is built from the get-go to be unable to scale with demand is always a mistake.

As bad as these failures have been, we will see more of them. The coronavirus pandemic's unparalleled economic pressure will reveal other weaknesses in our software stacks. We just don't know yet when and how they'll show up.

Videoconferencing

Poor Zoom. It's gone from being everyone's videoconferencing darling to being hammered on constantly for its security and privacy problems. It even has a new kind of security problem--zoom-bombing named after it.

Zoom, while it gets the headlines, isn't the only videoconferencing program, which is having its weakness revealed for the whole world to see. The WhereBy service recently had a naked man barging into a virtual classroom video conference in Norway.

Here, the problem wasn't a lack of funding. It was a lack of attention to security details.

As Eric Yuan, Zoom's CEO recently explained, he underestimated the threat of conference harassment. "I never thought about this seriously." Sigh.

Part of the problem is Zoom was designed for businesses with IT departments, which would take care of setting up videoconference security and password settings. Zoom's developers never dreamed of dealing with a horde of clueless users who didn't know they should set up meetings with passwords. How many more? More people started using Zoom in 2020's first two months than in all of 2019 and its numbers only rocketed upward from there.

That said, requiring meetings to have a password would have been the sensible default. Zoom now does require setting meeting passwords as the default. 

Zoom's chief design goal was making it frictionless for users. Security and privacy were secondary concerns. That same ease of use first led to it being wildly popular, and then, unfortunately, led to obnoxious idiots barging into meetings around the world.

Zoom, and the other videoconferencing companies, are improving their security as fast as possible. Zoom, for example, just released a much more secure version: Zoom 5. Clearly, though, Zoom and other videoconferencing programs failed at first to meet the coronavirus pandemic's security challenges.

Related: Coronavirus challenges remote networking

Winners

Internet

Everyone was worried sick the Internet would buckle under the load of all those people working from home — not to mention the millions streaming videos all hours of the day and night. Fortunately, everyone was wrong.

Weeks after the first stay at home order came down, the internet has proven up to the challenge of tens of millions of Americans staying at and working from home.

For example, Fastly, an edge cloud computing company, has found that in the New York/New Jersey region, which has been the most hardest hit area in the United States, internet traffic jumped by 44.6 percent in March, but download speeds decreased by only 5.5 percent . While, in California, traffic increased by 46.5 percent in March, while download speed remained largely unchanged, actually increasing by 1.2 percent . In short, "we can confidently say that the internet is holding up quite well despite experiencing a persistently increased load."

That's great news because without the internet, we really would be home alone. Without it, we couldn't work at home, never mind being able to videoconference with friends and family. Without the net, we wouldn't be able to stream movies, order goods and on and on and on.

Generally speaking, ThousandEyes, a global enterprise internet analysis company, has found, despite the traffic surge, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are performing exceptionally well. For instance, the ISP outage rate was actually down by 40% from April 6 - 12.

Of course, it's not all smooth sailing. Cloudflare, a leading Content Delivery Network (CDN), recently had a major service failure. By and large, the internet is managing the load. Lord knows we have troubles, but at least the internet isn't one of them.

Related: Coronavirus: What companies are ready for our new reality

The cloud

Many people were also worried about whether public cloud performance might also fall. While it's true Microsoft Azure has had trouble keeping up with the load, the other major public clouds, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and IBM Cloud have held up just fine. Microsoft is now addressing Azure's problems in several ways.

As ThousandEyes recently remarked, cloud service providers are looking pretty steady despite the traffic increase.

If anything, as Instinet analysts observed, CIOs are looking to the cloud more than ever for their future IT spending “The data suggests a pivot to cloud, and perhaps, more public cloud. CIOs expect to reduce their mix of on-premises workloads from 59% in 2019 to 35% in 2021.”

Another reason for this move to the cloud is 74 percent of businesses plan to permanently move employees out of their old offices after the pandemic, according to a recent Gartner survey.

And, after all, as Patrick Sullivan, Akamai CTO for security strategy, commented

“The nice part about the cloud is you don’t have to go physically install hardware somewhere." And, now, more than ever, you don't want people in your offices or data centers.

What comes next?

All-in-all, technology has proven a mixed bag so far in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Still, with the exception of the government IT fiascos, we're doing pretty well.

I foresee the upshot of all this being a bigger push than ever for the cloud and other network-based services. This may include a push to desktop-as-a-service (DaaS).

Related: Coronavirus challenges capacity, but core networks are holding up

System administrators are having enormous trouble keeping home workers' PCs working right and secure. One answer is to continue the pivot to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) office suites such as G Suite or, the newly relabeled, Microsoft 365. Chromebooks too are gaining popularity, in part because it's easy to remotely manage them.

Other technologies, such as wearable devices, may make the leap from fad to mainstream. Why? Because wearables give us access to personal medical data at times we need it more than ever.

To keep these trends going, the internet must keep working well. While it largely has, the difference between areas with good broadband and poor net connectivity has never been starker. We need to expand bandwidth out of the cities and the suburbs and into the country.

Hopefully, we'll make all these fixes before the next pandemic heads our way. One is enough for any lifetime, but there's no guarantee that another, or some other disaster, won't put us and our technologies to another stress test.