Location data has long proven to be hugely profitable to wireless carriers, given it's used by everyone from city planners to marketing departments. Now it's proving useful to help spread the track of COVID-19, allowing researchers to see not only who an infected person has been in contact with and where they've been, but also helping them predict where hot spots might appear next. Such technology was used during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to help both track and predict the movement of the disease.
Now the government says it's working in partnership with the advertising industry to use such location data here in the States. The Wall Street Journal (paywall, alternative read at The Verge) indicates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments have already received cell phone data about people in areas of “geographic interest." In this case, to track movements and determine how well people are adhering to "stay at home" restrictions:
"The goal is to create a government portal with geolocation information from some 500 cities across the country, to help ascertain how well people are complying with stay-at-home orders, according to the WSJ. One example of how the anonymized data was reportedly used: Researchers discovered large numbers of people were gathering in a New York City park, and notified local authorities."
Of course just because we're in a pandemic doesn't mean that privacy concerns magically evaporate, or that we shouldn't make an effort to respect citizen privacy. We've noted repeatedly that anonymized location data isn't really anonymous, and individual identities can usually be ferreted out with little to no effort. The more widely this data circulates, the more likely the chance is it's abused by everybody from industry and government to hackers and con artists.
The other obvious problem is that the fear of a pandemic creates wonderful cover to abuse the collection of this data for other, less noble purposes. The wireless industry was just busted selling access to this data to any nitwit with a nickel, which is likely why government is collaborating with the ad sector and not carriers directly (at least not yet, and as far as we know). The Washington Post also indicates that Google and Facebook, fresh off one of the biggest privacy scandals in U.S. history, are also collaborating with the government in regards to location data.
As anybody tracking this space knows, it's extremely difficult to claw surveillance power back from the government once it's been obtained, and with the U.S. still having no real privacy law for the internet era, it's a virtual certainty that the collection of this data will be abused. There could certainly be ways to mitigate that harm -- such as sunset provisions on collection and strict rules governing how this data can be used -- but we'd already made it abundantly clear as a nation we weren't particularly interested in such options, and with a climate of fear likely overshadowing everything, it's not likely we're about to start now.
While it takes a while, the threat posed by COVID-19 will eventually retreat. The surveillance practices we normalize during this period will very likely be here to stay.
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