The US is using mobile ad data to track people's movements during coronavirus lockdown

REUTERS/Al DragoPresident Donald Trump
  • The US is setting up a system to study where people are moving and congregating during the coronavirus pandemic, The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Sources told the Journal that federal and state governments are using location data gleaned from the online advertising industry.
  • The data is anonymised, so authorities are studying general population movement rather than tracking individuals.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US has started using anonymised mobile phone location data to study the spread of the coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Sources familiar with the project told the Journal the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state governments have already started to receive analysis based on this location data about where people are congregating.

The goal, for now, is to find out which places are still drawing crowds and could become hotbeds for the virus to spread. One source gave an example where researchers had found people were gathering in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and handed the data over to the local authorities.

One of the Journal’s sources said the eventual aim was to build a portal that government officials can access and which shows location data from up to 500 cities across the US.

The Journal’s report doesn’t name specific ad data providers, but it’s likely they have drawn their location information through apps.

Anonymised data means that personally identifying information such as a person’s name and birth date has been removed. Privacy activists worry that anonymised data and aggregated data can still be pieced back together to identify individuals.

Privacy researcher Sam Woodhams told Business Insider: “Working closely with the ad tech industry to track citizens’ whereabouts raises some significant concerns.

“The sector as a whole is renowned for its lack of transparency and many users will be unaware that these apps are tracking their movement to begin with.

“It is imperative that governments and all those involved in the collection of this sensitive data are transparent about how they operate and what measures are in place to ensure citizens’ right to privacy is protected.”

The US is not the first country to use anonymised data to study the spread of the virus. Italy, Germany, the UK and others have deployed or are thinking of deploying similar systems. But whereas these countries have teamed up with local telecoms companies to provide the data, the US is reportedly deriving the data from the advertising industry.

The coronavirus relief bill signed into law last week included a $US500 million provision for the CDC to build a “surveillance and data collection system” to track the spread of the virus.

Earlier this month it was reported that the US government was in talks with big tech firms including Google and Facebook to create a similar tracking tool, but Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied this.

The uptick in governments rushing to create new tracking tools has drawn criticism from privacy experts.

Woodhams previously told Business Insider that there is a risk once the coronavirus pandemic has passed that governments continue to use these tools.

“Although some may appear entirely legitimate, many pose a risk to citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of expression,” he said.

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