Tech Companies Could Face Increasing Pressure To Share Location Data to Fight COVID-19

In light of widespread social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are looking at other options to help slow the spread of the virus. The U.S. government is considering using technology to keep monitor adherence to social distancing and track the spread of the disease.

The Washington Post reported that “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.”

Though the data is supposed to be anonymized, these measures still raises privacy concerns. It also raises the question of what else could the government track. People are skeptical given the issues that Facebook and Google have had with user privacy.

“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,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “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.” However, in a Facebook post Zuckerberg noted that Facebook was “looking at how people can use our services to help contribute to the broader efforts to contain the outbreak” including using anonymized mobility maps, which show where aggregated groups of users are moving. The company also created colocation maps, which help predict how likely people are to cross paths; this can help determine if someone in the virus hotspot will cross paths with someone not in a hot spot and how alert they should be.

Facebook has previously shared data with academic researchers, nonprofits and research institutions. Tracking the coronavirus will be an extension of this data sharing. Andrew Schroeder, VP Research and Analysis at Direct Relief, an international disaster relief organization, “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… 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.”

“This is exactly the kind of problem that this data really should be able to give you insight into,” Schroeder said. “You recommended everyone not go to the bars. Did they listen to you?”

Schroeder is using this information to create a tool that can use Facebook’s mobility data to tell public health officials if people are moving more or less in a given county. The maps do not include information on demographics, due to privacy concerns.  Schroeder plans to share his findings in a daily briefing with the California Department of Public Health.

“We don’t need high-tech Big Brother tracking right now. What public health experts are saying is that we need tests, social distancing measures, and hospitals that are prepared for what is to come. We need to get the basics right, which we’re not doing,” Jacob Snow, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Google will examine the ways it can use anonymized location data to help fight the virus. “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.” This is in early development stages; Google has not yet shared this information with the government.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to Michael Kratsios, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, about his questions and concerns. “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. I urge you to balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis.”

Facebook and Google’s tracking does not include information on those who are infected, unlike the data collected by Israel and China. In Israel, citizens received a text informing them that they were in close proximity to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Those receiving the text were ordered to immediately be quarantined for 14 days. In the United Kingdom, this information is being used to see if people are adhering to the social distancing mandate.