U.S. government in ‘active talks’ with tech companies to use smartphone location data to track coronavirus spread

Usually when location tracking is talked about, it’s how companies are doing something wrong with it. But the United States government is considering walking that fine line in an effort to track the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That’s according to a new report today from The Washington Post. The publication states that the U.S. government is holding “active talks” with a variety of tech companies out of Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, and Apple, among others, to weigh the option of using smartphone location data to track the spread of the coronavirus. That would include determining whether or not people are keeping a safe distance from one another, or utilizing social distancing, in an effort to stem the global pandemic.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who requested anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts. Multiple sources stressed that -— if they proceed — they are not building a government database.

Facebook is not a stranger to this particular situation. The giant social network has used its location data for users to formulate maps for disease prevention, which it has shared with health researchers in the past. This effort would be a similar goal, and those researchers could use the data gathered to do a lot, including allocating resources where they are most needed.

Executives at Facebook have said, in this particular case, that the U.S. government is interested in learning about people’s movements.

We’re encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage aggregated, anonymized data to glean key insights for COVID-19 modeling efforts,” said an official with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, IBM, and other tech companies met with White House officials recently, with the government asking the representatives from those companies to help stem the coronavirus outbreak. And, as mentioned above, it has been stated that the government is not looking to form some sort of database with this information.

But, depending on how something like this could be rolled out, it’s likely to cause some individuals to be very wary of where their location data is going and how it is being used. And, of course, what happens next if/when the coronavirus pandemic is mitigated.

What do you think of the idea?