By now most Americans have gotten the message that, as much as possible, they need to stay away from everyone else. In San Francisco and a growing number of other cities around the world, all non-essential travel has been banned. Even in cases where life more closely resembles normalcy, the government has encouraged social distancing. And if anyone in your life isn’t
yet under self-quarantine, sending them this brutal essay by Jeff Wise ought to do the trick
. It’s a plausible account of how you might contract COVID-19 even while doing your best to wash your hands and minimize social contacts; the prose is so sharp and severe that I almost found it cruel
OK, so you’re social distancing; I’m social distancing. How’s everyone else doing? It’s a question we all have a vested interest in answering, from government and elected officials managing the outbreak to everyday citizens wondering how long we’re all going to be caged up. But the fatally slow rollout of testing in the United States
has made it much harder than it should be to trace the path of the disease throughout the country. And so the government has begun to consider other solutions.
The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus
, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.
Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project is in its early stages.
You don’t have to be a dues-paying member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to shiver at some of the implications here. The government is going to monitor your location to ensure you’re staying a safe distance away from people most of the time? Even if the data was anonymized as promised, it still might seem like a dangerous precedent to set. When else might the government ask to track our phones?
Given the sensitivity people have had lately around the potential misuse of their Facebook data in particular, it makes sense that this was the first question Mark Zuckerberg got yesterday during his briefing with the press. As it turns out, Facebook has
made aggregated, anonymized location data available to academic researchers. Issie Lapowsky wrote about the program on Tuesday in Protocol
Andrew Schroeder is vice president of research and analysis at Direct Relief, an international disaster relief organization based in Santa Barbara. Since 2017, Schroeder has been using mapping tools developed by Facebook’s Data for Good team to track population movements during natural disasters and disease outbreaks. These maps use aggregated, de-identified location data from Facebook users who have location history turned on in their Facebook apps. Some 125 nonprofits and research institutions around the world have access to them. Schroeder has used them to track evacuation efforts during California’s wildfires and map the cholera outbreak in Mozambique.
But as social distancing efforts have swept the country over the last week, Schroeder began to realize that the same tools he’s used to track where people in crisis are moving could also be used to track whether they’re staying put.
Schroeder told Protocol that he plans to begin sharing a daily briefing with the California Department of Public Health with his findings.
But Facebook isn’t sharing data directly with the government. “We’re not aware of any active conversations or asks with the U.S. or other governments at this point asking for access to that data directly,” Zuckerberg said on Wednesday’s call. “So I think some of those reports might have just been rehashing the disease prevention maps projects that we’ve been doing in the past.”
That would seem to explain the Facebook part of the story. But how about Google? Here’s what the company said when I asked. (It was the same thing the company told the Post.)
“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps. This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts. We will provide more details when available.”
I’m told that this work is in the very early stages of development. At the moment, Google hasn’t shared any anonymized location data with the government, and has no plans to join in on an industry effort should one materialize.
In short, whatever conversations
may have been had between Big Tech and the government recently, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to lead to the direct sharing of location data. Still, Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA, sent a letter
to the office of the chief technology officer of the United States on Thursday with questions about how the CTO planned to use any such data. “Although I agree that we must use technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector to combat the coronavirus, we cannot embrace action that represents a wholesale privacy invasion, particularly when it involves highly sensitive and personal location information.”
Four hundred Israelis looked at their cellphones Wednesday night and discovered just how closely their government is keeping tabs on them during the coronavirus crisis. The country’s Health Ministry had sent tailored text alerts telling citizens that a digital review of their movements showed they had been in proximity to a person known to have tested positive for the virus.
It was not just an advisory. The text also delivered an instant quarantine order, in keeping with ever tightening restrictions dictated by the Israeli government. “You must immediately go into isolation [for 14 days] to protect your relatives and the public,” the notice said.
The government is working with mobile network O2 to analyse anonymous smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines, Sky News has learned.
Ministers and officials believe they can use anonymous mobile phone location data to analyse how Londoners have reacted to its guidance on social distancing and the new transport restrictions
One lesson from all this is that if a tech giant ever tells a government that it can’t have a data set, there’s likely a telecom in that country that will be happy to give it away or sell it
. Another is that we’re about to learn a lot about the effectiveness of varying technological approaches to addressing the pandemic. Again, it would be best for everyone in the United States if the company began testing people for COVID-19 with the diligence that other modern nations have. But if that effort continues to lag, we would do well to push harder on developing alternatives.