US Government exploring use of location data to combat coronavirus

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What you need to know

  • US government officials are exploring how to use location data to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
  • It is reported that they have spoken with both Facebook and Google.
  • It has been theorized that location data from smartphones of US citizens could help track and map the spread of infection.

US government officials are reportedly holding talks with tech companies including Facebook and Google over the prospect of using location data from phones to track and map the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

As reported by The Washington Post

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.

The report claims that location data from smartphones could be used by public health experts to possibly track and map the spread of infection of the virus. According to TechCrunch:

Location data taken from the smartphones of Americans could help public health experts track and map the general spread of the infection, the group has theorized, though of course the prospect of any kind of location tracking is bound to leave people uncomfortable, especially when it's done at scale and involves not only private companies with which they have a business relationship, but also the government.These efforts, however, would be strictly aimed at helping organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) get an overview of patterns, decoupled from any individual user identity. The Post's sources stress that this would not involve the generation of any kind of government database, and would instead focus on anodized, aggregated data to inform modeling of the COVID-19 transmission and spread.

The US government has previously met with Apple, Google Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter to discuss a coordinated response to the pandemic.

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented peacetime state of affairs in our modern era, the prospect of mass surveillance by taking location data of millions of Americans would probably make a lot of people uncomfortable. It seems difficult to imagine how the government could do this without infringing on the privacy of its population.

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Stephen Warwick