The Trump administration is reportedly exploring ways to use Americans’ smartphone location data to track the coronavirus outbreak. Sources claim the administration has been in talks with some major tech and telecom companies, including Google and Facebook, about potentially get access to location data for disease tracking purposes. One source claims the interest could expand beyond anonymized and enter into the realm of privacy issues.
The initial leak about these alleged talks comes from The Washington Post; subsequent reports have expanded on the matter, with some companies providing statements on the topic. According to CNN, the government has only asked for ‘generalized location’ data at this point for insights into the changes this outbreak has caused.
For example, the anonymized data could be used to see how traffic patterns have changed since the outbreak was announced and the effect local quarantines and ‘social distancing’ efforts have had at this point in time. It could also help officials see which stores are getting heavier traffic than others, potentially helping with distribution and demand.
AT&T and Apple both told CNN that they hadn’t participated in any government talks about getting location data. Both Google and Facebook confirmed they participated in these talks, while multiple major telecoms haven’t yet disclosed whether they took part, as well.
One source claims that the State Department has also received requests from several foreign governments over the potential to use big tech location data to track the movement of people. The leak raises concerns over what kind of safeguards need to be put into place for such a plan, as well as the potential for abuse and privacy violations. Google confirmed that it hasn’t provided any such location information at this point in time.