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Your phone's location data could soon be used to track coronavirus spread

The collected data would reportedly be anonymous, but we've been here before.

Published onMarch 18, 2020

Your smartphone tracking data could be used by the government to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen loads of technology firms offer support, and it looks like these companies are willing to step things up even further.

The Washington Post reports (h/t: CNET) that the US government is in talks with Facebook, Google, and other tech firms about possibly using smartphone location data to combat the pandemic.

More specifically, it’s believed that the government is eyeing the use of location data to track whether people are indeed keeping a safe distance from each other.

Read: Top 10 tips for remote work — Stay productive while working from home

The data would reportedly be anonymized and aggregated, three sources told the Post. But the New York Times has previously shown that people’s identities can indeed be tied to anonymous smartphone tracking data. So we really have to wonder whether tech firms would be able to provide the government with truly anonymous, aggregated tracking info in the first place.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubting that smartphone tracking data could be of use to authorities trying to clamp down on the coronavirus pandemic and future disease outbreaks. For example, this could theoretically be used to stop people trying to conduct large-scale meetings.

Facebook and Google’s responses

Facebook didn’t confirm or deny that it was in talks about working with the US government about using smartphone tracking to combat the coronavirus crisis. But a representative told CNET that several governments are supportive of its Disease Prevention Maps feature.

“In the coronavirus context, researchers and nonprofits can use the maps, which are built with aggregated and anonymized data that people opt in to share, to understand and help combat the spread of the virus,” the representative added.

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Google didn’t directly confirm the discussions with the US government either, but told the Post it was looking at ways that “aggregated, anonymized” tracking data can be used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” the representative noted.

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