I expected the debate about location data might unfold over the next few weeks as the coronavirus reaches more communities and its death toll surges. Instead, though, the United States government just went ahead and started analyzing our smartphone location data. The data is reportedly being supplied by mobile advertising companies, and is being shared with the Centers for Disease Control as well as state and local governments. Byron Tau had the scoop at the Wall Street Journal
The aim is to create a portal for federal, state and local officials that contains geolocation data in what could be as many as 500 cities across the U.S., one of the people said, to help plan the epidemic response.
The data—which is stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner—could help officials learn how coronavirus is spreading around the country and help blunt its advance. It shows which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk accelerating the transmission of the virus, according to people familiar with the matter. In one such case, researchers found that New Yorkers were congregating in large numbers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and handed that information over to local authorities, one person said. Warning notices have been posted at parks in New York City, but they haven’t been closed.
The story goes on to note that location data can reveal whether citizens are complying with orders to stay at home — and, by tracking the decline in foot traffic to retail stores, begin to quantify the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
Anyway, this all happened rather fast. (It happened before the Washington Post could even publish its survey of tech experts
about whether America should use location in this way. A slim majority voted that America should not. Sorry!) And, as Violet Blue notes at Engadget
, it happened without our explicit consent. The Journal
story explains that the government was able to get data from mobile ad companies rather than US telecom providers because telecoms’ use of data is highly regulated, whereas ad companies’ is not. Blue writes that other countries using location data took a more forthright approach — one that may be less likely to spook people away from getting tested, for example. Blue writes
The countries with the best balance of privacy and virus tracing are containing it, namely South Korea and Taiwan. In fact, most of the countries showing success with coronavirus tracing have unique, current legislation specific to pandemics with provisions on data collection. The laws in Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Taiwan meet the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards. These countries are thinking about what will happen in the days after we all survive the novel coronavirus, and acknowledge that it’s a terrible idea to unbraid privacy from healthcare.
In South Korea and Taiwan, two countries who’ve done well to push back against the virus without the draconian tech-surveillance measures of China and Israel, legislation around data collection includes oversight and transparency for its citizens. “For example,” Haaretz wrote
regarding South Korea’s approach, “citizens were provided with an explanation of what information was collected, for what purpose and when it would be erased.”
Hopefully the American approach will include more direct communication about the use of our location data soon.
Elsewhere, big tech companies continue to consider and develop new tools responding to the crisis. On Friday, Apple launched an app and a website to help people screen themselves for COVID-19. Jay Peters wrote it up at The Verge
Apple today launched a website
and a new app
dedicated to COVID-19 screening. The resources offer an online screening tool, information about the disease, and some guidance on when to seek testing or emergency care. Apple developed the site and app in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the White House.
The screening tool asks you questions about your symptoms, recent travel, and contact you may have had with people who have had or been exposed to the virus. After completing the screening process, you’ll be taken to a page with recommended next steps that will also suggest whether you need to be tested for COVID-19.
Apple noted that the tool should not be considered a replacement for actual medical care. But at a time when it’s nearly impossible for many people to get tested, Apple’s product should be useful in educating people about the disease’s symptoms and encourage people who are likely infected to seek medical help.
Over at TechCrunch
, Jon Evans looks at a call for Apple and Google to go a step further and build operating system-specific versions of Singapore’s TraceTogether, an app that “uses Bluetooth to track nearby phones (without location tracking), keeps local logs of those contacts, and only uploads them to the Ministry of Health when the user chooses/consents, presumably after a diagnosis, so those contacts can be alerted.” Singapore has said it will make the app broadly available via open source, but some are calling for Apple and Google to roll their own versions quickly:
An open letter
from “technologists, epidemiologists & medical professionals” calls on “Apple, Google, and other mobile operating system vendors” (the notion that any other vendors are remotely relevant is adorable) “to provide an opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing.”
They’re right. Android and iOS could, and should, add and roll out privacy-preserving, interoperable, TraceTogether-like functionality at the OS level (or Google Play Services level, to split fine technical hairs.) Granted, this means relying on corporate surveillance, which makes all of us feel uneasy. But at least it doesn’t mean creating a whole new surveillance infrastructure. Furthermore, Apple and Google, especially compared to cellular providers, have a strong institutional history and focus on protecting privacy and limiting the remit of their surveillance.
Apple has invested so much in defining itself as a privacy savior that it’s difficult to imagine the company building something like TraceTogether for its users, no matter how well intentioned. But I didn’t expect the federal government to start tracking our phones over the weekend, either. Even if, to those of us working from home, every day can feel eerily similar to the one before it, the world around us is changing with unsettling speed.