Report: Smartphone location data being used to track American citizens amid COVID-19 pandemic

Government officials are reportedly using smartphone location data to track the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

Researchers are scrambling to find a way to contain the coronavirus pandemic. In the fight against the virus, time is of the essence. However, that means that some unconventional methods are being used in the effort.

According to a report from The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), government officials are using smartphone location data to anonymously track American citizens. The strategy is supposedly in use to help develop an understanding of how the virus spreads in order to develop an appropriate response. However, it is understandably raising privacy concerns.

Location Data to Fight COVID-19

It doesn’t seem that there is an immediate connection between location data and the coronavirus. However, authorities are reportedly using it to follow the movements of population clusters.

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According to the WSJ report, both state and local officials are receiving information including the “presence and movement of people in certain areas of geographic interest.”

Supposedly, the data is stripped of personally identifiable information and is supplied by tech companies and mobile ad providers. The goal of collecting it is to create a portal with data from more than 500 U.S. cities to help government officials plan a response to COVID-19.

In response, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes says that the agency isn’t using “phone application data” to fight COVID-19. Rather, he claims that the CDC is using public health surveillance data from the World Health Organization to follow the disease’s spread.

Although it is unclear how long the use of smartphone location data has been occurring in relation to COVID-19, the technique is already translating into action. Researchers reportedly discovered that large groups were gathering in a New York City park and notified local authorities to break up the gathering.

The use of location data to track the spread of the virus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Moving forward, it could also lead to other uses. For instance, the government or the CDC could use it to monitor compliance with stay-at-home orders.

Major Privacy Concerns

Even the use of anonymous location data raises some huge red flags. It’s incredibly difficult to completely dissociate a person’s location data from their identity. As such, it could be used to track the movements of individuals. It could also reveal sensitive information about their private lives.

Senator Ed Markey has voiced these concerns. He says, “The administration must take extreme care not to implement location data-use policies that run the risk of violating Americans’ privacy.”

According to a Washington Post report earlier in March, the U.S. government was in “active talks” with Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google to determine how to use smartphone location data. As of now, mobile phone carriers aren’t providing data.

In an unprecedented time like this, it isn’t surprising that officials are using every resource at their disposal. If it helps stop the spread of the coronavirus, then perhaps the use of location data is excusable. However, it is a situation that needs to be carefully controlled and monitored. Without doing so, things could quickly veer into the territory of extreme privacy violations.

For users who are highly concerned, taking steps to customize your phone’s location tracking settings is probably a good idea.


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