U.S. Government Exploring Ways to Use Smartphone Location Data to Track Coronavirus Spread

The United States government is in talks with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies about how location data from smartphones can be used to combat the coronavirus, reports The Washington Post.


Tech companies could aggregate anonymous location data that could be used to map the spread of the coronavirus and determine whether social distancing is an effective virus mitigation strategy. The discussions, and the project, are in the early stages.

Facebook executives have said that the government is interested in understanding the patterns of people's movements, which can be provided through Facebook data. Facebook has in the past offered this kind of information in the form of disease prevention maps for health researchers, and officials could use the data to predict hotspots and where to allocate health resources.

"We're encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage aggregate, anonymized data to glean key insights for COVID-19 modeling efforts," said an official with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Government sources say they are "not building a government database" and that insights gleaned from location data could "help public health officials, researchers, and scientists improve their understanding of the spread of COVID19 and transmission of the disease."

As The Washington Post points out, using smartphone location data in this way could make some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it's implemented. The data that Facebook provides for other disease tracking projects limits the granularity of location data to a third of a mile, with no data provided about an individual's movement.
"You're trying to predict the probability that a group of people in Prince George's County might interact with a group of people from D.C.," said Laura McGorman, who leads the project. Such a prediction could offer clues for how infections might travel.
Multiple tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, met with White House officials last week, where they were asked to help the government with its response to the growing outbreak. Google is now working on an informational coronavirus website that's set to launch in the near future, which comes after President Trump mistakenly announced that Google was working on a comprehensive site that would allow people to check symptoms, arrange tests, and get test results. Verily, a Google company, had planned to launch a coronavirus-focused website limited to the Bay Area of California, and the purpose of the site was misstated, leading to confusion. The Bay Area site has since launched, but Google is also now working on a site offering "COVID-19 education, prevention, and local resources."

White House officials, tech experts, and health officials have also created a portal of more than 29,000 coronavirus research papers that let AI tools scan and analyze data to discover new insights.

More information on the plans to use smartphone location data for combating the coronavirus can be found in The Washington Post's full article. Tag: COVID-19 Coronavirus Guide

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