July 15, 2020
As the coronavirus continues to ravage the country, the way the government will collect data about Covid-19 cases changed today. On March 29, Vice President Mike Pence asked hospital administrators to report data about coronavirus through three different systems: the network provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), HHS Protect, and TeleTracking. Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that, beginning today, hospitals should report daily information about coronavirus cases not through the CDC system, which has been in place for 15 years, but rather through the other two.
This move has met with widespread condemnation as observers worry that Trump is trying to take control of information about the coronavirus in order to conceal it. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has hidden information this way, and Trump has made it clear he believes that if only he downplays the numbers, he can convince people to go back to work and resurrect the economy.
But there is another angle to this change that seems to me likely to be at least as attractive to the president as control over data information. That primary issue is money.
HHS Protect is developed by Palantir Technologies, a data-mining firm that works with the Pentagon and law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Peter Thiel, a billionaire Trump supporter, co-founded the company, which last week confidentially filed paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to go public. An initial public offering (IPO) would have made bucketloads of money in any case, but a federal contract to compile coronavirus information is a sweet addition to its portfolio.
The TeleTracking system also raises suspicions of a financial deal. On June 3, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), wrote to the director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, to ask why HHS had awarded a $10 million no-bid contract to create this data system that duplicated the one the CDC already had. Why indeed?
There is, in the letter shifting data collection, a peculiarly nasty stick. Underlined on the first page of the instructions is that “We will no longer be sending out one-time requests for data to aid in the distribution of Remdesivir or any other treatments or supplies. This daily reporting is the only mechanism used for the distribution calculations, and the daily [sic] is needed daily to ensure accurate calculations.”
Remdesivir is one of the two drugs proven effective at combatting Covid-19. Two weeks ago, the Trump administration bought up almost all of the world’s supply of the drug for the next three months.
The rest of the world was outraged at this purchase, but at the time HHS Secretary Alex Azar defended the move by saying “To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it. The Trump administration is doing everything in our power to learn more about life-saving therapeutics for Covid-19 and secure access to these options for the American people.”
Now, it appears, in order to get access to it, hospitals will need to use the private data systems the administration supports.
There were two other big stories today.
First, Trump announced tonight he is replacing his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, less than four months before the election. A replacement at this stage of the game indicates trouble for the campaign. Parscale has borne the brunt of Trump’s anger at his dropping polls, which today showed Trump behind the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by double digits. The debacle of the Tulsa rally, in which Tik Tok users and K-pop fans so badly polluted the data the campaign was harvesting from the event it almost certainly could not be used, appeared to seal his fate. This is a tad awkward for the campaign, since Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump, Jr.’s girlfriend, and Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, have been receiving $15,000 a month through Parscale’s company to avoid disclosure on Federal Elections Commission reports.
Parscale will stay on the campaign as an adviser for data and digital operations.
Bill Stepien, a political operative who worked for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, will replace Parscale. Stepien got embroiled in the 2013 Fort Lee Lane Closure scandal that snarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge for four days. Intended to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for opposing Christie, the scandal instead hurt Christie’s national ambitions. Emails and texts show that Stepien knew of the scheme before it happened. Christie fired him when the communications came to light, but Stepien was never indicted in the case.
Second, this afternoon, Twitter was hacked. Some of the nation’s most prominent politicians and entertainers lost control of their accounts, which mysteriously posted messages sounding like a giveaway. They told readers that if they sent Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, the Twitter user attacked would double the money. Eventually, Twitter was forced to shut down all verified accounts for two hours, silencing official voices on the platform Americans increasingly use to stay on top of breaking news. The attack interrupted tweets from the National Weather Service about a tornado in Illinois, for example, when the verified account providing information was shut down.
The attack was a dramatic illustration of how vulnerable our communications systems are to hackers. Casey Newton, who writes about social media and democracy at The Interface, noted that this hack was a sign of what could come: the incitement of “real-world chaos through impersonation and fraud.” Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and the former chief security officer at Facebook, told the New York Times: “This demonstrates a real risk for the elections. Twitter has become the most important platform when it comes to discussion among political elites, and it has real vulnerabilities.”