It’s no secret that tech giants like Facebook and Google have had access to your whereabouts for years. But did you know that information can be used to provide targeted relief during the spreading coronavirus crisis?
Big tech companies often require users to “opt-in” to location tracking to launch the service. Then, they follow your every move, even when you don’t have the apps open.
While studies continue to show that consumers aren’t fans of the practice, government agencies are reportedly trying to find out where people are and where they’ve been in the fight to contain the outbreak.
Google recently revealed that it had talks with government officials and health experts about tapping its trove of location data in the age of COVID-19, a recent Washington Post report said. USA TODAY has reached out to Google for comment.
It’s unclear what the outcome will be, the report said, but the government doesn’t plan on building its own database.
Still, experts say tech giants like Google and Apple are best positioned to offer useful location information that’s actionable in the wake of the virus which has infected more than 200,000 people globally.
The state of eating out:Restaurant reservations plunge, but fast food is doing fine
Can coronavirus survive on your Apple Watch or Fitbit? Yes, experts say
Google Maps gathers a hub of information on how many people are gathering and when, as the search giant’s services provide details on traffic and commutes. Apple also sends data from your device to its Maps service.
The government and health authorities could use that intel to find out how many people are practicing social distancing as infection cases continue to ramp up, experts say.
“If you have all the location data from a phone, you can see whether people are following the suggested shelter in place,” said Alex Hammerstone, a privacy and security risk manager at TrustedSec. “If the government says everybody should stay home, but based on location data, half the phones are moving all around town, the suggestions could then become mandates.”
For years, Google has tracked flu patterns based on search history and provided that information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as search queries provide almost instant signals of flu prevalence.
But there is still some mystery surrounding how the coronavirus behaves. It’s often associated with the common flu, though more severe in certain cases. It was once thought to survive on surfaces for a few minutes, now studies suggest it can live for days.
Medical supply shortage
The FDA says it’s monitoring the medical supply chain with the expectation that coronavirus will cause shortages in disruptions of products in the U.S.
If the government can pinpoint local hotspots for contagion, it can follow foot traffic patterns to predict how likely and how quickly the respiratory illness will spread then deploy aid to hospitals in targeted areas before patients start lining up.
“This can help public health agencies predict where most resources will be needed for hospitals in the coming weeks and prepare,” said Randy Pargman, senior director at Binary Defence and former a former FBI agent.
Pargman said most location data collected by tech companies is anonymized, and aggregated data may be the most useful. The government can access individual data with a search warrant.
Using location data collected from cellphones comes with challenges, however.
Smartphones don’t often give an exact location, so use cases in congested cities with tall buildings might be limited. Also, not everyone uses a cellphone. And there are state laws around privacy in California and New York that could present legislative hurdles.
Furthermore, in the age of data collection, targeted ads and hacking scandals, privacy is a top concern for consumers.
In fact, a January survey by DataGrail found that 83% of American adults expect to have control over how a business handles their data. Though people may be more willing to give up privacy amidst a growing pandemic if it could save lives and keep them from getting sick.
“If people don’t get sick, they can still work,” said Marty Puranik, a cybersecurity expert and CEO of the cloud hosting provider Atlantic.net. “If the government could use location tracking on somebody that was diagnosed with COVID-19, they could contact everybody who was around them and warn them that they may have been exposed.”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.