US government taps location data from the mobile ad industry to track movements of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic

The United States government is tapping into smartphone location data, obtained from the mobile advertising industry rather than wireless carriers, to understand the movements of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic and track compliance with curbs on movement.

The Wall Street Journal has the story this morning:

The federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments have started to receive analyses about the presence and movement of people in certain areas of geographic interest drawn from cellphone data.

I’m going to take a wild guess here as to why Uncle Sam has turned to ad companies rather than carriers for location tracking — the ad industry, due to the pervasiveness of its surveillance apparatus on the web, has much more accurate location data than carriers do.

The aim is to create a portal for federal, state and local officials that contains geolocation data in what could be as many as 500 cities across the US, one of the people said, to help plan the epidemic response.

The US government amassing location data on its citizens, what could possibly go wrong?

The data—which is stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner—could help officials learn how coronavirus is spreading around the country and help blunt its advance. It shows which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk accelerating the transmission of the virus.

This is already happening in Germany, Austria and Italy, and governments in other countries are contemplating same moves. In Israel, BBC News reported earlier this month, the local government passed laws allowing security agencies to track the phone data of people with suspected COVID-19 so they could locate others they might have come into contact with.

I get the need for some kind of system in place that would be designed to check how well people are complying with stay-at-home orders, but it’s disturbing that governments appear eager to decrease everyone’s privacy under the guise of caring about public health.

In one such case, researchers found that New Yorkers were congregating in large numbers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and handed that information over to local authorities, one person said. Warning notices have been posted at parks in New York City, but they haven’t been closed.

So if I tested positive on the coronavirus and don’t plan on complying with stay-at-home orders, what’s stopping me from leaving my phone at home when I leave the house? Think I’m paranoid? Then take a look at this animation of the locations of phones that were on a Florida beach during Spring Break, shared by a company that provides geolocation analysis.

If you’re not disturbed at all by the thoroughness of smartphone location tracking and sheer amount of private data that can be gleaned from our phones, then don’t be surprised if the novel coronavirus infects our privacy and civil liberties forever.