U.S. uses location data to track movements during coronavirus: report

woman holding smartphone
The data does not come from cell phone carriers but rather the mobile advertising industry, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Getty Images)

U.S. government and health officials appear to be the latest tapping anonymized cell phone location data to understand Americans' movements amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Unnamed sources familiar with the matter told the WSJ that federal – via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – state, and local governments are starting to get information about movements and places where crowds are still gathering, in risk of further spread of COVID-19. It also can provide a general sense of how well populations in certain geographic areas are adhering to stay-at-home orders, and virus-related economic impacts like declines in people at retail stores.

The data does not come from cell phone carriers but rather the mobile advertising industry. It doesn’t contain personally identifying information and the goal is reportedly to build a portal with geolocation data for up to 500 U.S. cities, one source told the news outlet, which could help government officials understand how the virus is spreading and aid in preparing responses.

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The information, which appears to show parks, public areas and places like retail stores, could be helpful in flagging locations that are still attracting large crowds as local officials work to curb the epidemic.

According to the WSJ, a group of tech companies and data providers are starting to give the CDC location-based data analyses, while state and local governments have also started seeking out research and information from private companies.

Wireless carriers hold a large amount of customer geolocation data, but that information is subject to strict privacy protections.

Unrelated to the coronavirus tracking, in early March the Federal Communications Commission proposed collective fines of more than $200 million against AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon related to the sale of unauthorized access to customers’ real-time location data to third-parties even after they became aware of the issue. All four carriers said they put an end to agreements with location data aggregators and T-Mobile and AT&T had said they would fight the FCC findings.

The government has not approached the largest U.S. carriers about providing location data, according to the WSJ.

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Of course, location tracking, even if meant to be unidentifiable, comes with some level of privacy concerns as surveillance ramps up, particularly once the crisis has passed. Other countries grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic have also turned to location data as a way to identify and potentially mitigate the spread, with some taking more invasive measures than others.

European mobile operators agreed to share aggregated and anonymous data to officials in Italy, Germany and Austria to monitor residents' movements and map hot zones of the virus outbreak, in ways that comply with European privacy laws, according to Reuters. 

South Korea has taken stringent tracing methods, which include disclosing specific location information of individuals who tested positive for the virus. Israel is also taking more invasive measures to track coronavirus patients though cell phone data to determine whether people are complying with quarantine policies.   

There are also voluntary efforts, such as the C-19 COVID Symptom Tracker app, developed by researches and available to anyone in the U.S. or U.K who wants to voluntarily share symptoms and information to help track the spread of the virus.

In the U.S., the White House on Sunday extended social distancing guidelines for another 30 days until the end of April, telling Americans to avoid nonessential travel and groups of more than 10 people, among other steps.

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