Concerned small business owner looking at computer

Who’s Giving Your Location Data to the Government?

5 min read • Apr 16, 2020 • Grant Olsen

First, the good news. Social distancing appears to be an effective strategy for slowing the spread of coronavirus. Small business owners have been hit hard by the crisis’s toll on our nation’s health and economy, so any future improvements to the situation could prove critical.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top health advisor, announced that social distancing is lowering death toll projections to approximately 60,000. This number projects a substantial decrease from earlier projections that reached as high as 200,000. If the new projections prove accurate, 45 states and the District of Columbia will see a lower number of deaths compared to the previous, more dire, models.

“At the same time as we’re seeing the increase in deaths, we’re seeing a rather dramatic decrease in the need for hospitalizations,” explained Fauci at a recent White House briefing. “That means that what we are doing is working and therefore we need to continue to do it.”

Now, here is some potentially unsettling news related to our nation’s efforts to combat COVID-19. Several internet giants are sharing individual location data in order to track social distancing trends. Exhibit A in this discussion is the COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports Google has developed based on data from users like you.

“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded,” announced the company in a blog post. “We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.”

Notice the terms “aggregated” and “anonymized.” Google is quick to point out that their reports are compiled using privacy-protecting technology to ensure users aren’t singled out or identified.

Additionally, your movements are only being tracked and reported if you’ve activated Location History in Google Maps. For those who are unsure if their Location History is currently turned on, the default setting is “off.” Unless you activated Location History yourself, it should still be in that state. This opt-in feature is part of Google’s efforts to assuage public fears over their tracking practices.

But if you opt into a feature without fully understanding how your data will be used, does that really qualify as legal consent? Many in the tech industry would say that it does. And other prominent voices argue that the anonymization of data compensates for the fact that the implications aren’t always clear to users.

“The United States government wants tech companies to tell it where you’ve been as part of its effort to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic,” says a data privacy analysis from Recode. “And while that sounds invasive on its face, it is possible for the government to do this and preserve our digital civil rights — as long as the correct safeguards are put in place first.”

Many advocates for the government’s efforts suggest that even if you have concerns about invasion of privacy, this situation is a case where the ends justify the means. Essentially, the anonymized data from your phone can benefit the greater good in the midst of a crisis, so it’s time for you to put your concerns on the back burner and share the data.

As privacy researcher David O’Brien put it in an interview with Recode, “…the trade-off has always been you want to very carefully match any types of privacy measures you put in place against what is it that you ultimately want to learn from the data.”

Of course, there will always be varying interpretations of what constitutes a worthy justification for this type of sharing of private information. A scenario that’s acceptable to one person could seem outrageous to another. And vice-versa. Given the subjectivity of the issue, some experts are calling for checks and balances—a third party unbeholden to the tech giants or the government.

“It would be useful if there was some sort of accountability mechanism here, so it’s not just a tech company saying that they’re making a decision that’s in the best interest for everyone in the country,” says O’Brien. “Somehow it could be verified by outside experts that the types of privacy protections they say they put in place are, in fact, there.”

While these government requests for location data have elicited a wide range of cheers and fears, it’s worth evaluating whether the concerns stem from the source of the request. Are we primarily concerned about a slippery slope to the aggressive forms of public surveillance used in countries such as China?

This question is relevant because our location data is already being shared. In essence, the government didn’t even need to ask for it (unless, of course, they want more robust forms of it). In addition to Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, Facebook has its Data for Good program—and there are plenty of other similar data sources available to the public.

Do these billions of data points add up to a greater good? Many believe so. As long as anonymity is maintained, this approach to data sharing walks an acceptable tightrope between Big Brother tactics and the alternative of our government being blind to many of the trends occurring in the country.

Perhaps it concerns you that your location is being tracked even if you are a responsible citizen who is practicing social distancing. This feeling is understandable. But remember that the virtues of aggregated data prevent your movements from being personally distinguished from your reckless neighbor who still goes to poker night at his buddy’s house every Friday night.

Additionally, your responsible actions regarding social distancing are an important part of the data because they inform the positive trends in your area. This practice includes avoidance of crowded areas and limiting movements during the busiest times. The good things you and other like-minded citizens are currently doing give clarity to the situation, hopefully allowing the government and related organizations to manage the coronavirus crisis as effectively as possible.

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Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.