The political, social and economic changes during the COVID-19 pandemic are both reflected in, and driven by, commercial technological power. We are watching many companies transition their operations to new domains - one highly visible example of this is Google and Apple’s transition into public health by adding functionality into mobile phone operating systems to enable contact tracing. Philosopher Tamar Sharon analyses this process as ‘sphere transgression’: firms establish themselves in one sphere of application, then use the computational infrastructure and insights they gain from it to pivot to other spheres.

With this work we aim to analyse what distinguishes sphere transgressions from firms’ normal process of innovation and growth. Our starting points are that they occur in response to a perceived emergency that also creates a potential new market; that they enable firms to act in domains where their political legitimacy is not established; that they diminish the space and opportunities for actors who are qualified in the domain, and that this has implications for the public that go beyond privacy harms.

This project is being conducted with funding from the European AI Fund’s Tech and COVID grant program. We will be undertaking this work during 2021, in collaboration with a network of civil-society organisations and experts from Europe and around the world. Our work on this theme began in February 2021 with a meeting to scope the issues in the EU. The meeting notes can be found here.