US to track Americans’ location

The world’s three billion-plus smartphones transmit the kind of data that US health officials want to access during the Covid-19 outbreak. They show where citizens are, where they’ve been, and who they might have talked. Possibly offering maps to find infected people and marks to prevent new ones. But obtaining access to this information, even among a global crisis, is made complex. Legal and ethical issues surrounding government ability to access intimate details about individuals’ lives raises questions. While it sounds invasive on its face, can the US officials do this and preserve people’s digital rights?

Tracking whereabouts to spot vulnerable populations

The federal government is in “active talks” with Facebook, Google, and other tech experts, on how to use Americans’ cell phone location data to combat the Coronavirus outbreak, The Washington Post reports. That would include monitoring people whether they are following instructions. Of course, to stem the pandemic by maintaining social distance and staying close to home. Public-health specialists want to use the potential of tech giants that could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form.

Public-health experts claim that tracking trends can be remarkably effective at helping officials control the spread of coronavirus. The Covid-19 already infected more than 50,000 people in the US alone. The country needs all the help it can get amidst predictions before millions of Americans get sick. Yet, this approach could leave USA citizens uncomfortable, given the sensitivity to personal data aggregation.

The law prohibits it

Besides privacy concerns, there are some explicit lawful limits to what the government can get from tech companies. Mobile location data is specifically sensitive, due to personal information that gleans from it. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently made a move to issue significant fines to cellular phone carrier companies that were reportedly selling private location data. In 2018, the US Supreme Court released a law that officials must acquire a search warrant if it needs to access an individual’s location data.

However, at this time, the US government doesn’t intend to get the location data of specific citizens. In essence, they need the location information of many people in unidentifiable form. Which would make it impossible to trace that data back to individuals. It’s no secret that our smartphones regularly transmit their location data to wireless carriers. Often, to the same tech companies as well - Google or Facebook. These two need to collect location information to deliver functional services. Such as weather reports, hail rides, or help people find a nearby restaurant. So, the US officials ask whether these companies’ geolocation data would help epidemiologists spot vulnerable populations, trends, or identify risk areas, such as hospitals under strain.

Privacy advocates remain suspicious

Privacy advocates are skeptical about the legal and ethical implications of deploying such data to combat the disease. On one side, you could argue that privacy is not the top priority. When it comes to a rapidly growing pandemic, some rebalancing of individual interests may be appropriate. Cybersecurity experts claim that the American government will have to walk a fine line if it wants to get beneficial information while maintaining netizens’ privacy rights.

Even if the measure is based on vital social interests, the US officials should be transparent. Carefully define the limited purpose of which data they will use and for how long they will keep it. It’s a central dilemma as it could raise fears that the government is spying on citizens. Or to gain access to data that can be used against them later after the health emergency has over.

Other countries do that, too

Using data from cell phones to combat the pandemic is not a new idea. Last month, China launched an app, which lets people check if they have been in close contact with anyone infected by Covid-19. Later on, the app appeared to be sharing this data with the police. According to the report from the New York Times, researchers found that the app sends precise user’s location. Together with city name, and identifying “health-status” tag to a server that supposedly belongs to China’s authorities.

Perhaps the most privacy-invasive location tracking is appearing in South Korea, where the officials built a publicly accessible map from peoples’ cell phone data. The map helps citizens discover if they had contact with someone who is Coronavirus-positive by showing all the places they visited. Also, South Korea’s health authorities keep sending text messages that range from warnings about handwashing to precise information about infected people. An example text message looks like this: “A woman in her 60s has just tested positive. Click on the link for the areas she visited before she was hospitalized.” Yet, South Korea is viewed as a success story in its efforts to combat the spread of the pandemic.


John C.

John C.


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