The 100 People Transforming Business series showcases leaders driving innovation in consumer technology

  • Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple faced the U.S. Congress in a landmark antitrust hearing, capping off a year that saw new calls for accountability for market share and misinformation.
  • Privacy is also a growing concern for consumers, as demonstrated by the success of encrypted apps such as Signal. 
  • Meanwhile, tech innovation continues, as 5G emerges in increasingly accessible packages for consumers,  and health wearables have a moment. 
  • 100 People Transforming Business is an annual list and series highlighting those across industries who are changing the way the world does business. Check out the full list for 2020.

Technology and change often go hand in hand, but 2020 has marked a period of transition unlike any other. A pandemic upended daily life, increasing our reliance on technology and prompting long-lasting changes that will influence how we work and communicate.

COVID-19 is only one piece of how the tech landscape is changing. A bigger demand for privacy and the growing influence of politics and social issues on the apps and services we use are coming to define the industry. It all comes as tech companies are discovering new applications for smartphones and gadgets like wearable devices as Silicon Valley races to build the next evolution of the personal computer.

This has been a landmark year for accountability across Silicon Valley that will set the tone for where the tech industry is headed. That was on full display in July as tech CEOs from Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were challenged by Congress on their size and scope in a landmark antitrust hearing.

But antitrust concerns are only one way the role of big tech in our everyday lives has been called into question. Privacy has become a dominant part of the conversation about tech, especially as more people have started using Zoom and other digital tools for sensitive conversations.

Pressures to ensure privacy, and accountability

Evan Greer, deputy director of advocacy group Fight for the Future, has been instrumental in drawing attention to privacy threats stemming from tech. The group pressured Zoom to make end-to-end encryption free for its calls and pushed for stronger privacy protections in COVID-19 tracing technology.

Privacy has also become a bigger priority when it comes to the apps that everyday consumers use to communicate, as evidenced by the rising popularity of Signal. The encrypted messaging app became the eighth most downloaded social-networking app for iPhone users in June, as protests against police brutality swept the US.

“It’s important to realize that real change happens in private,” Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike told Business Insider’s Aaron Holmes. “If you don’t have any truly private spaces left, I think you’re sacrificing a lot.”

Politics and social-justice issues are holding a greater influence on technology than ever before, and look no further than President Trump’s executive order against TikTok as evidence of this. The president issued the order in early August over concerns that the app’s Chinese ownership deems it a national-security threat. Microsoft and Walmart are teaming up in a bid to buy the video app to assuage such concerns, and enterprise giant Oracle is said to have expressed interest in acquiring TikTok as well.

The ways in which politics and social justice are shaping social media also became evident on Twitter and Facebook in recent months. Backlash erupted after Facebook chose to not remove a post by Trump that said “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” threatening violence against protesters after the police killing of George Floyd. Twitter, on the other hand, hid the post behind a warning label, reigniting the debate about how social-media giants should approach content moderation.

Wearables, and the future of 5G

At the same time, the pandemic has pushed tech companies to innovate. Health, for example, has always been a core focus of wearable devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit. But the pandemic has sparked interest in exploring how these devices could be used to detect illnesses early.

Oura, a health-monitoring ring worn by Jack Dorsey and Prince Harry, has lent its devices to studies researching whether wearables could be used to detect COVID-19 symptoms. Most notably, the NBA ordered 2,000 of Oura’s $300 smart rings to help players and staff keep closer tabs on their health as they finished the season inside the bubble.

Oura Health CEO Harpreet Rai says he sees devices like his company’s smart ring as being useful for helping us understand when it may be time to visit the doctor, even if no symptoms are present.

“If you compare it to a car, we wait until the engine is broken, and it’s on the shop to figure out if something needs to be fixed,” Rai said. “What if our bodies could be understood like the dashboard of a car? I think that’s the way that these consumer devices will blend into working with the healthcare system.”

Health tracking isn’t the only way personal tech gadgets are becoming more advanced. After years of hype, 5G is poised to finally start becoming a reality as carriers build out their networks and more phones support the technology.

But you won’t have to break the bank to get a phone with the latest 5G tech. Many companies like Google and Samsung have been building compatibility into their less expensive devices as well.

You can thank OnePlus for starting that trend. The Chinese tech company has been challenging Apple’s and Samsung’s dominance of the industry for years by launching well-received yet inexpensive smartphones. That still holds true even when it comes to 5G, which industry experts believe will power a range of connected devices beyond smartphones such as smart glasses.

Between the emergence of 5G and new health-monitoring wearables, it’s clear that technology is going to become only more pervasive in our lives. But what’s also become certain is that heightened scrutiny will accompany such advancements.

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