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US Government looking to use cell phone location data to halt the spread of COVID-19

This will no doubt be a concern to privacy advocates.

According to a report in The Washington Post, the US Government is currently in talks with several tech companies, including both Facebook and Google, as to how it might be able to use location data from cell phones to better track and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation.

As per WaPo:

"The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak."

What action, exactly, would stem from that info is another consideration altogether (punishments for those who fail to maintain adequate distance?), but the idea is that by accessing specific location marker info from the tech giants, the Government would be in a better position to understand how the disease might spread, and how communities could be impacted by the same.

The approach has solid foundations - both China and South Korea have effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19 by using smartphone location data to track the movement of their citizens.

Singapore, too, has seen a high-rate of success with its anti-coronavirus measures, with just 96 cases of the virus in the nation thus far - and crucially, zero deaths. COVID-19 recoveries in Singapore are also now outpacing the rate of infection, and a key element within its response measures has been tracking the location of people placed under home quarantine via their phone GPS.

But such initiatives have also, reportedly, overstepped the mark at times.

As explained by Wired:

"In South Korea, the authorities have sent out texts detailing the movements of specific people infected with COVID-19, stirring up public shaming and rumor-mongering. The government is also using a smartphone app to ensure that people stay home when they've been ordered to quarantine themselves. The ubiquitous Chinese apps WeChat and AliPay have been used to assign people “color codes” to determine whether they should quarantine themselves or may move around freely. But some citizens say the codes appear to be applied arbitrarily or based on which province they are in. There is also evidence the apps feed data back to the authorities."

It's not perfect, and in the hands of more authoritarian governments, such information is prone to abuse. But then again, we are in extraordinary times, and as such, maybe extraordinary measures like this are required to enable us to get back to normal life, and limit the impacts of the pandemic.

If the US Government were to access such insight, a key parameter would be anonymity, and ensuring that the information provided did not also provide individual insight. The current proposals also make specific note that any such effort cannot lead to the establishment of a government database of movement info. The aim of any such initiative would be to better understand the spread of COVID-19, and nothing else.

But of course, it's very difficult to maintain the lines between acceptable uses of such data and overreach.

Is the risk worth it in this sense? Could the potential of such a system outweigh the privacy concerns, as we all work to establish a way forward in the months ahead without a COVID-19 vaccine in place?

Facebook has previously provided anonymized location tracking data for various purposes, including, most recently, in tracking citizen movements during the Australian bushfires to better manage resources and understand key shifts.

And while not everyone enables apps to track their location, the majority of people do, which means that these types of tracking tools are highly accurate - and at the least, are indicative of key shifts and trends.

On balance, considering the ongoing impacts we're likely to face due to COVID-19, it seems logical that we should allow such usage, but again, maintaining separation between privacy and utility is challenging, and will no doubt cause some angst moving forward.

But if the Singapore example is anything to go by, we need to at least consider the options in this respect.

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