Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard’s podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been unavoidable, but over the last year and a half many of us have slipped into daily routines where we are insulated from the horror of people regularly getting sick and dying from a pandemic. COVID case data is updated constantly, but can still feel abstract during your nightly doomscrolling sessions.
That’s why artist and technologist Justin Blinder created Pandemic Pulse, an application that uses local COVID data to drain your computer’s resources.
“I’m really interested in how we can approach data visualization in ways that recontextualize data with all of the lived experiences and environments and emotions that are often stripped when something becomes data,” Blinder told Motherboard. “Pandemic Pulse was really this intervention that’s designed to re-sensitize ourselves to the severity of the pandemic and make the data more tangible.”
Using data from the CDC, the malware calculates the local rate of infection and morbidity to measure its impact on your computer. According to the Pandemic Pulse website, a local .1 percent infection rate would slow a computer’s speed by 10 percent using a stressing application that stress tests the computer. The malware also creates an overlay on the desktop to dim the screen’s brightness according to the local death rate. If COVID deaths in your state are on the rise, your screen could suddenly turn pitch black.
“Through our devices, we can experience specific effects— a certain (computer) slowness, a dimming (of the screen)— from its omnipresence,” Blinder’s website reads.
The application itself doesn’t impact computer data and can be turned on or off, returning the computer and display to its original state. Pandemic Pulse poses no harm or any real use to those who download it, it just serves as an “ambient reminder” of the spread of COVID in your area. The malware’s source code is publicly available on Blinder’s GitHub for those who are curious.
Blinder has the malware installed on his own computer and has noticed its impact while staying in Massachusetts, which is currently experiencing a seven day positivity rate of 2.8 percent according to its government website. He also recently traveled to California, which now has a positivity rate of 6.1 percent, where he noticed that his computer was running differently.
Blinder first launched the malware back in January but has since relaunched the project during this recent rise in Delta variant cases.
“It does feel like you’re being connected closer to what the data represents, rather than just the data itself,” he said.