Government is tracking Americans’ cell phones to see how they move and spread coronavirus

Government is tracking Americans’ cell phones to see how they move and spread coronavirus

6 mins read

US is tracking Americans’ cell phones to see how they move and spread coronavirus during the pandemic

  • The data comes from the mobile advertising industry 
  • 500 cities could eventually be monitored in a portal that will be accessible by federal, state and local officials to help implement epidemic response 
  • Goal of the portal would be to help officials learn how COVID-19 is spreading across the United States
  • A combo of tech companies and data providers have been assisting the CDC in providing them the analyzed location data 
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

By Dailymail.com Reporter

Published: | Updated:

Government officials across the United States are using cellphones of millions in the country to get a better understanding of how the virus is spreading. 

The federal government through Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local governments have started reviewing data about the presence and movement of people from certain geographic areas using cellphone data.

The data comes from the mobile advertising industry, people familiar with the matter explained to the Wall Street Journal. 

Approximately 500 cities could eventually be monitored in a portal that will be accessible by federal, state and local officials to help implement epidemic response. 

The federal government through Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local governments have started reviewing data about the presence and movement of people from certain geographic areas using cellphone data. Prospect Park on Friday

Void from the data is sensitive data like cellphone user’s name. The goal of the portal would be to help officials learn how COVID-19 is spreading across the United States. 

It would show which destinations are still being frequented by large crowds that could help spread the coronavirus, people familiar with the matter explained. 

For instance, one source shared that researchers learned that a huge number of New Yorkers had been visiting Brooklyn’s Prospect Part and handed the information over to authorities. 

Parks have been posted with advisory warnings but they have not been closed across the city. 

The data would also potentially show how much the general public is complying with stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, according to experts familiar with the matter.

Approximately 500 cities could eventually be monitored in a portal that will be accessible by federal, state and local officials to help implement epidemic response

It can also measure the economic impact the coronavirus has by showing the drop-off in retail customers at stores and decreases in automobile miles driven. 

A combo of tech companies and data providers have been assisting the CDC in providing them the analyzed location data.

The CDC nor the White House responded to the Wall Street Journal for comment. 

The government commissioned programs calling for mobile phone location data are raising concerns about privacy protections.  

Wolfie Christl, a privacy activist, said the location-data industry was ‘covidwashing’ what are generally privacy-invading products.  

‘In the light of the emerging disaster, it may be appropriate to make use of aggregate analytics based on consumer data in some cases, even if data is being gathered secretly or illegally by companies,’ added Christl. 

A combo of tech companies and data providers have been assisting the CDC in providing them the analyzed location data

Wolfie Christl, a privacy activist, said the location-data industry was ‘covidwashing’ what are generally privacy-invading products

‘As true anonymization of location data is nearly impossible, strong legal safeguards are mandatory.’

Some US location data companies do allow public access and have already allowed for government agencies to access them. 

LotaData, a San Francisco-based company, launched a portal analyzing movement patters in Italy that could help officials plan for plans to implement in Spain, California and New York.

Unacast launched a ‘social distancing scoreboard’ that uses location data to share with places how well their communities are doing with following stay-at=home orders. 

Foursquare Labs Inc. is also in talks with numerous states on how to make use of their data. 

Unacast launched a ‘social distancing scoreboard’ that uses location data to share with places how well their communities are doing with following stay-at=home orders

The move even extends to research institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launced a project to track volunteer COVID-19 patients through a mobile phone app.  

There are 123,778 cases of the coronavirus in the United States

So far in the United States, data used has mostly come from the advertising industry as the mobile marketing industry has billions of geographic data points on cell phone devices across the country. Most come from applications users have installed on their phones that allow the tracking of one’s location.

The industry is mostly unregulated under privacy laws that are currently in existence as consumers have signed off on tracking and because most data does not contain sensitive information.

Cellphone carriers also have access to geolocation data. That data is protected under much stricter privacy protection under US law than in most other places.  

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