First Israel proposed using a “secret trove” of cellphone data to track the spread of coronavirus infection in the country, tapping a mobile phone database “secretly gathered to combat terrorism.” Now the U.S. government is proposing to do something similar in coordination with Google and other major U.S. tech companies.
According to 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 benefits of using location data. There’s no question that mobile-location data and offline movement patterns could be a powerful tool in fighting the coronavirus and providing insights about where and how quickly the virus is spreading. The benefits of accessing “aggregated, anonymized” location data could include:
- Tracking areas where known carriers had been and alerting those communities.
- Determining whether social distancing is working, and whether and where people are congregating in groups or whether they are staying apart.
- Literally mapping the spread of the infection and predicting where outbreak clusters might happen next.
Concerns about abuse. The problem, of course, is whether this evolves from a public health and safety tool into something potentially more expansive beyond the initial scope over time. This is what many privacy advocates believe happened with The Patriot Act, originally passed in the wake of 9/11 to protect American lives, it became a controversial instrument of domestic surveillance.
Declining trust and a skeptical public. Both the Trump administration and major U.S. tech companies have credibility issues with the U.S. public. Facebook and Google, and to a lesser degree Apple, have been involved in personal data-related controversies in the past, dating back years in some cases. This has caused a general erosion of trust in these companies and their public statements about safeguarding privacy.
That distrust is even more acute when it comes to health-related personal data. A 2018 survey of 4,000 U.S. adults, conducted by Rock Health, found that only 11% of respondents were willing to share their health information with tech companies and only 12% with the U.S. government. Today those figures might even be lower.
A 2019 survey (chart above) of more than 3,500 people in the U.S. and U.K. found low levels of trust in major tech companies in general. Only 24% trusted Google and only 13% said they trusted Facebook. Other surveys reflect different numbers, but directionally they all convey declining trust. At one point (2014), however, more people trusted Google than the U.S. government.
Why we care. Location data is extremely valuable, especially as cookies disappear. However, issues of consumer privacy and public trust are directly relevant to sensitive uses of location data, such as in this case. Consumers have often expressed strong, negative views about being tracked on their phones. GDPR and CCPA are both partly responses to perceptions of data misuse or mishandling by tech companies, as well as perceived indifference to consumer privacy concerns.
Location data would undoubtedly be extremely helpful in the coronavirus fight. But any leaks, misuse or abuse might fuel a further public backlash that could jeopardize the continuing availability of location data for marketers, and bring more regulatory or legislative restrictions in the future.