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Elaine Ou

Tech Companies Can Track Your Panicky Coronavirus Searches

Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have their fingers on the pulse of public sentiment about Covid-19.

Searching for answers.

Searching for answers.

Photographer: Bloomberg

Two weeks ago, Sand Hill Road VC firm Andreessen Horowitz received some heckling after posting a “No Handshakes” notice on their front entrance. Coronavirus cases were still rare outside of China, and it was easy to dismiss the precautions as symptomatic of Silicon Valley’s heightened self-importance. Now that multiple U.S. cities have declared a state of emergency, it may be worth considering the decisions of those who spend their days analyzing massive troves of user data — and considering whether that data might be used to draw any conclusions about the virus now known as Covid-19.

Amazon was one of the first companies to withdraw from last month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona over coronavirus concerns. Amazon ships products to over 100 countries around the world, so it’s not surprising that they would be ahead of the curve in predicting disease outbreaks. Just follow the flow of face masks and hand sanitizer. According to Amazon price tracking site camelcamelcamel, the prices of Purell hand sanitizer and disposable masks began to rise around the end of January, a reflection of the impact of supply and demand on automated pricing algorithms.