How Phone-tracking Technologies Can Slow The Spread Of Coronavirus In The US
On April 3, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Europe are using cellphone surveillance strategies to track residents who have been infected with the coronavirus. The unprecedented cellphone surveillance strategy is an effort to slow the spread of the disease.
This practice has already been used in China, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel, but has faced bigger opposition in the U.S. and Europe over privacy concerns. According to the CDC, there are now over 375,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and over 12,000 deaths.
How Cell Phone Data Can Help Control The Spread
The federal government is currently working to create a portal that will combine phone geolocation data to help authorities find and predict where future COVID-19 outbreaks will occur. This can help authorities put the proper resources in place to assist these areas.
The advantage of using cell phone data is proximity tracking. If authorities are able to track the cell phone data of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, they know where the person has been, whom they may have interacted with, and can, therefore, help contain the spread of quarantine to a smaller area.
Cell phone data could also tell the CDC and other organizations where people are still gathering during the pandemic. Google is already sharing portions of its data with the federal government to showcase such data.
Google, Apple, Facebook, and more have always been able to track our data. The major difference now is that the government is now using the data. According to public health experts, location-tracking may be an effective way to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus and get a better idea for the real number of the infected population.
Google Leading The Charge
Here in the U.S., Google is providing data every few days at the county level, summarized in a way that does not reveal any individual’s data or travels. The data shows how foot traffic increases or declines at six types of destinations: homes, workplaces, retail and recreation establishments, parks, grocery stores, and pharmacies, and transit stations.
If people are following government guidance, the percentage of people in retail and recreation areas should be trending downward while people staying home should be on the rise. Google insists that all individual data will be anonymous, and the location, contacts, or movement of any single person will be kept private.
The data used will come from those who have already granted Google permission to track their location history. This is similar to how Google is able to track data to tell users what time certain establishments are busy.
Privacy Concerns Over Using Cell Phone Data
While there is likely to be pushback because of privacy concerns, consumer privacy advocates acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic offers unique circumstances. The public health benefits of using the cell phone data greatly outweigh any potential harm, especially given Google’s assurances that personal data will be kept private.
The U.S. has not taken measures as extreme as other countries. Poland and South Korea, for instance, have required or requests that people under quarantine download an app that allows the government to track their movements. While such measures are unlikely to ever occur here in the U.S., the current tracking data could assist health officials in coming up with more accurate numbers of infected persons and help control the spread.