The U.S. government is analyzing phone location data to plan coronavirus response

This ‘anonymous’ data-sharing sets a dangerous precedent — and the project is unlikely to help.

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The U.S. government is using location data to track the movements of its residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter. The location data, which is being pooled from cell phones across the country, is analyzed and sent to federal, state, and local governments via the CDC. Mobile advertisers are actually reporting the data, rather than cell phone carriers themselves, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The ostensible goal of this location-tracking is to assist officials in learning how the novel coronavirus is spreading across the country. But the project brings with it high risks and a low chance of reward. It’s a reactive measure rather than a proactive one; too little too late, given how far COVID-19 has already spread across the U.S. And it’s a project that inherently erodes personal privacy in its process.

Is this the new normal? — It’s no secret that location data from our phones is used by various companies and organizations for their own purposes. Other countries have been leveraging technology against the novel coronavirus — like Poland’s selfie quarantine app and China’s risk-assessment app. Whispers of the U.S. government taking similar measures have been floating around for a few weeks now. The ongoing theory of privacy, it seems, is that we should be willing to sacrifice the personal in pursuit of a greater good.

Anonymous but unregulated — The location data being used here is not traceable to individuals, as far as we know. Rather than being identified by a name or address, each data point is assigned an alphanumeric string. These points are then pooled to analyze where people are still gathering in the midst of the pandemic.

Because the data is considered anonymous, it is very much unregulated. Advertisers who purchase the data are allowed to do just about whatever they’d like with it. Right now this data is being used to inform law enforcement about gatherings, thereby allowing them to issue further warnings in these spaces.

It’s easy to wave off this usage as an emergency, a measure taken by the government for the public good. But it’s also a reminder that, because we lack legal regulations around data-tracking, our information can essentially be used by any party at any time, given the right combination of power and resources. The government’s use of location data now sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

Unlikely to help — Privacy concerns aside, this location-tracking project is doomed to fail from the start. One of the main reasons COVID-19 has spread so quickly across the world is its ability to be passed by asymptomatic carriers. By the time location data is collected, analyzed, and acted upon, the damage has already been done. Even then it isn’t being used to take firm measures against the spread of the coronavirus; rather than closing public parks where people are still gathering, for example, law enforcement is instead just posting warnings. This approach is unlikely to yield any results.

The government is using your location to inform its activities. Even if the data is somewhat “anonymous,” this creates a model of surveillance that is likely to become more extreme in the future. And it won’t even improve public health.