US government in talks with Facebook, Google to use smartphone location data in coronavirus tracking
In order not to violate any privacy laws, the location data must be anonymized and aggregated, so it can’t be tied to individuals, revealing their identities. There are certain ways this can be done, but studies have shown it’s not as easy as it sounds. Handing location data to the government will probably raise privacy concerns and won’t be a popular move with the general public.
However, if authorities can track and prevent large-scale gatherings of people in time, this can help contain the spread of the disease. Facebook didn’t confirm the involvement with the US government specifically, but issued an official statement on its news section: “In the coronavirus context, researchers and nonprofits can use the maps, which are built with aggregated and anonymized data that people opt in to share, to understand and help combat the spread of the virus”.
Meanwhile, Google told Washington Post, that the company is “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps”, but stressed that any possible partnerships “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts”.
We’ve reached out to both companies for comment and will keep you posted on any further updates.