location data, Location Data Implementation vs COVID-19

Location Data Implementation vs COVID-19

The US government is reportedly in discussion with Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and other major technology firms, as well as public health experts over possibly utilizing user location data to counter the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

The plan, according to unnamed White House officials, involves using collected, anonymized smartphone data locations provided by tech companies. It will be used as a means to track and map the general spread of the virus.

Facebook and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

The news came after talks between technology industry leaders and White House officials last week, as the US rushed to mobilize the private sector to help combat the spread of the COVID-19.  

Chief executive of Amazon.com Inc. Jeff Bezos has been in contact with the administration regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Although it was not clear in what capacity Bezos is working with the White House on the virus. 

Facebook and Google have made their own move as well. The social media giant is collaborating with health officials around the world for its disease-prevention maps project. The project gathers data to assess the severity of the spread of diseases.

Google has also ventured into a high-profile alliance with the White House. The group launched an early-stage coronavirus testing website. This took place days after US President Donald Trump appeared to have overstated its scope. And took the company by surprise with an announcement Friday. 

Potential Use of Location Data Raises Some Red Flags

A tool that is able to examine trends through a smartphone owner’s whereabouts can be a huge help to authorities at this time when the coronavirus pandemic has caused over 196,000 infections and more than 7,800 fatalities.

The location data could also offer other benefits like details on the impact of social distancing measures that are currently in effect.

Still, not everyone is likely to approve of such an idea due to its privacy implications. Sources familiar with the matter stressed that the technology firms would not be establishing any type of government database should the plan to receive the green light.

The location data will be aggregated and anonymized.  It will not grant the US government the ability to monitor the movements of a particular person, the sources said.

The efforts would instead work on anodized, aggregated data to inform the modelling of the COVID-19 transmission. 

Moreover, the plan will support organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that present an overview of patterns, decoupled from any individual user identity, according to the sources.

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