Weekly Roundup 1/6/21

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | January 06, 2021

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A loading bar for 2021

As the world bid 2020 goodbye and geared up for the start of a new year, many have had their eyes on the future challenges and successes for technology in 2021. One New York Times columnist foresees that digital remittance payments will soar in the year ahead, as shutdowns and pandemic regulations limit how many migrant workers can send money across borders through more traditional ATM wires. The Reuters Foundation published a list of eight digital rights and data privacy battles that will define 2021, covering everything from COVID contact tracing to workplace surveillance, from database breaches in Cape Town to facial recognition systems in Moscow.


Many expect tech companies to face increased policy challenges in the new year, as many governments take new interest in their citizens' digital privacy rights, and as the battle over Section 230 in the U.S. rages on from both sides of the aisle. While some issues, such as the antitrust lawsuit filed against Google, will take years to be resolved, it is possible that 2021 will end with new legislation giving consumers greater control over their data.


Top weekly tech headlines, curated for you:


Open Internet:

  • Having built up its Great Firewall, say tech experts in an article for The Register, China seeks to create an entirely new IP address system for the internet that would make user identification and verification easier. China's "splinternet" poses the greatest threat to Africa, as Chinese companies install fibre-optic networks, smart cities, and huge data centers across the continent. The splinternet will no longer just impact citizens in Iran, Russia, and China, but those in countries around the world on the cusp of building new digital infrastructure.
  • Singapore's authorities have confirmed that police and law enforcement will have access to the country's COVID-19 contract tracing data in criminal investigations. The government aims to make contact tracing technology mandatory at future public gatherings, but to ease privacy concerns early in the pandemic, officials had emphasized that data would not be accessed unless a user tested positive for COVID, and would be deleted after 25 days.
  • In a controversial decision, India's National Informatics Center has announced that it will allow companies to access the country's criminal database for background checks. While government officials hope that charging companies to perform these checks will provide a method to monetize this data, internet activists told the Hindustan Times that giving third party companies access to such sensitive data could lead to misuse of data and hiring discrimination.



  • As conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus abound unchecked online, writers at War on the Rocks argue that acts of domestic terrorism against critical infrastructure and technology will only become more commonplace. In the wake of the recent Nashville bombing attack on Christmas Day that took swathes of the U.S. southeast offline, many experts fear a string of copycat attacks from those who fear digital technology and a "5G apocalypse."
  • Scholars at the University of Oxford have developed HateCheck, a tool that seeks to evaluate, detect weaknesses, and improve algorithms' detection of hate speech online. Their research tests commercial hate speech detection models and reveals critical flaws in their natural language processing.
  • While Facebook changed its news recommendation algorithms to prioritize verified, authoritative news sources to prevent the spread of misinformation ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections in November, users' feeds have returned to normal, despite hotly contested Senate seat runoffs in Georgia this week. The Citizen Browser Project found that highly partisan articles about the elections became significantly more prevalent after Facebook removed controls, and that the platform made money from political advertisements that contained misinformation.



  • The New York Times' 2020 Good Tech Awards recognized a number of innovative startups working to solve problems of the year, from crowdsourcing data on ventilators from hospitals to inventing new methods for firefighters to communicate about evacuation routes in California.


Distance Learning:

  • In an effort to tackle the digital divide of remote learning, teachers in the U.S. have begun to broadcast their lessons on local TV stations, reaching students without reliable internet connections or laptops at home who have been left behind by the switch to Zoom learning. Television broadcasts also offer many students a chance to focus on their lessons on a larger screen, and without the technical disruptions and malfunctions that have become commonplace this year.



  • Merely banning facial recognition technology, says the Justice Initiative, will not solve the problem of mass surveillance or prevent discriminatory data-driven policing. Discrimination and racism, Nora Mbagathi argues, are not "glitches that can be ironed out with a better algorithm."
  • Microsoft has filed a patent for a system that would use “social data” to create a “special index” in the theme of a specific person’s personality. The patent raises the possibility of using data from images and video, voice recordings, and electronic messages and posts  on a specific person, dead or alive, to create 2D/3D models of a person or train a chat bot to interact with a specific personality.


Other Tech News:

  • More than 225 Google engineers and other employees announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers' Union this week, following increased demands for policy changes on pay, harassment, and ethics. Experts believe that an organized workforce at Google could help more than the company's employees - it could impact broader conversations about technology, power, and society. 
  • After a ballad dedicated to Remy, the protagonist of the 2007 animated film "Ratatouille," went viral on TikTok in August, a collective of fans swarmed to create an entire musical theater production from scratch: complete with songs, set designs, and makeup. After an okay from Disney, real Broadway stars picked up the content to perform as a benefit for The Actors' Fund. The success of "the Ratatousical" speaks to the creativity and collaboration that can be fostered by such popular social media apps.