Google and Unacast Glean GPS Location Data from Your Cellphones Helping Governments Enforce Stay-at-Home Orders
Google announced in a blog post that it is tracking people’s movemnets using phone location data to help governments track stay-at-home orders. They are the only one. An public webpage launched by a Norwegian company is tracking and reporting the location of US citizens via their data collected from their own smartphones. Unacast, Inc. based in Norway is using GPS location data from people’s smartphones and displaying it on their Social Distancing Scoreboard. Now state governments are using it to track and enforce their stay-at-home measures. States are scored with a grading system, with an A to F rating, to judge the mobility of their residents. It can also be used to see where people are congregating.
Unacast silently collects data in the background of “free” games, apps, social media sites, weather apps, and others installed on smartphones. The collection and distribution of data is legal (though highly questionable) through seldom read and usually confusing user agreements. Privacy advocates consider this to be “surveillance” technology.” Unacast does not focus on world health as the focus of their day job. According to the company’s website they track people and sell aggregate date to retail, travel, tourism, marketing, and real estate clients. “Our clients use human mobility data to expand their understanding of customers beyond their doors.” states Unacast’s website, the company helps clients “identify areas of opportunity across marketing, real estate and operations.”
As of today, Unacast gave the entire United States a B minus or below with the exception of the District of Columbia.
State agencies like The Kansas Department of Health and Environment are using Unacast’s a Social Distancing Scoreboard to monitoring how citizens are complying with the stay-at-home orders. This prompted the Kansas Justice Institute to inquire about whether there was a contract in place to monitor citizens.
Unacast’s website states, “we’ve been contacted by government officials and health policy experts at the local, state, and federal levels expressing great enthusiasm for our aggregated analysis”
Kansas has a D rating according to Unacast.
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And some questions about if government agencies or states have access to more precise or frequently updated data are mounting. According to Lawrence Journal-World ,“The publicly available data on Unacast’s website currently has a four-day lag time, the company noted on its website, while Norman said the data he had access to updated every other day. The post refers to Kansas Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman.
You Are Being Surveilled
You are being surveilled courtesy of your own smartphone. Although the data is supposedly, anonymized and aggregated this is a real concern for data privacy advocates. Firms like Unacast can be sketchy because they’re collecting locations without consent from people. Basically, your cell phone location data is being used to track your movements to monitor whether you are complying with social distancing requirements under the guise of fighting the spread of COVID-19 — requirements that people nationwide are still getting accustomed to.
Locaiton tracking presents privacy issues because the people being surveilled rarely realize that their location and history were being used by companies like Unacast for tracking and reporting.
Google Is Also Tracking and Reporting Your Location
Not to be outdone Google has also created “mobility reports” avaialble for download to assess the movements of citizens. Google aggregates location data from a number of web properties and apps they own – including the obvious Google Maps, but also from other apps like YouTube, Chrome web browser, the Play Store, Google Wallet, Photos that use location data to tag places, and Gmail.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”
The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.