Tech Companies & Government Explore Uses of Smartphone Location Data Regarding Coronavirus

As COVID-19 continues to sweep the nation, the United States government is attempting to find innovative ways to monitor and prevent the spread of the virus.

Although the current recommendation is to stay inside and practice “social distancing”, many have chosen to forgo these rules due to skepticism or lack of concern. The White House is trying to find a way to map the spread of the virus and gain information regarding areas of risk, rate of transmission, and the effectiveness of social distancing. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, one of the options up for discussion is to utilize location data from cellphones as a tracking solution.

Smartphone location data

How Would This Help?

Large tech companies such as Google and Facebook are in on this conversation, as well as large health care companies. The main idea is the data would assist health care professionals in mapping and predicting the spread of COVID-19 through the patterns of people’s movement. Although there are live maps currently online that track outbreaks, this would offer a more in depth look into the logistics of contamination. Smartphone location tracking could lend a hand in predicting the probability that people from one geographical area will interact with another, similar to monitoring the busiest places in cities or busiest times for restaurants. It is possible that the data could also aid in decisions regarding the distribution of supplies since resources will continue to be spread thin.

What About Privacy?

Privacy is the largest concern if this proposal is actually put in place. The thought of the government watching their every step is one that has never sat well with the American public, even though we allow common apps to use and sell our location data every day. From what has been made known so far, the data would be anonymous and aggregated, as to not encroach on Americans’ privacy. The goal is not to stalk every individual in the country; the goal is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and predict future hot spots. Facebook occasionally supplies comparable information logged by their app in order to collaborate with health professionals researching disease prevention. This could be used as a model for the plan the government is looking to implement.

Technology is an essential instrument in everyday life, as well as in innovation. With all of the hysteria in the news and social media right now, this potential tool could serve as an example of how technology can be used in a reliable and constructive manner in times of national emergency.

Read more about this topic at the Washington Post.