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U.S. government may use phone location data to fight coronavirus

The anonymized data would give health professionals insight into the disease's spread.


Mikael Thalen


Posted on Mar 17, 2020

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The U.S. government is currently looking into whether it can harness data collected by major tech companies to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Cellphone location data collected by companies such as Facebook and Google, the Washington Post reports, could give health professionals new insight into the disease’s spread.

The data could be used not only to determine whether people are adhering to current social distancing guidelines but to map the virus in communities across the country.

Sources with knowledge of the matter stressed to the Post that if the plan were to move forward, the anonymized data would not be stored in a government database.

Such an effort would likely receive some pushback given concerns over civil liberties, especially in light of reports indicating that individuals can be linked to the “anonymized” data they produce.

Two U.S. officials further argued, the Post adds, that the data could “help epidemiologists spot trends, including vulnerable populations, or identify areas at risk, such as hospitals under strain.”

The concept of tracking the spread of a virus with large swaths of user data isn’t new. Facebook is already providing certain anonymized data about its users’ movements to help health researchers in numerous countries map the spread of disease.

News of the potential government plan came not long after technologists and medical professionals penned an open letter calling on Silicon Valley to take action against the coronavirus.

Specifically, the letter asks tech giants like Apple and Google to implement “privacy preserving” features that could aid the fight against the pandemic.

While the U.S. government’s deliberations appear to be taking privacy into consideration to an extent, other countries have been more drastic in their plans to combat the outbreak.

The Israeli government has temporarily approved emergency measures that will allow its security agencies to track cellphone users throughout the nation in its efforts to stop the disease.

The decision has been called “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope” by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.


H/T the Washington Post

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*First Published: Mar 17, 2020, 5:58 pm CDT