USA government track phone location data to monitor spread of COVID-19

Yolanda Curtis
March 31, 2020

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with local and state governments to track the location of people situated in "areas of geographic interest". Privacy activists worry that anonymized data and aggregated data can still be pieced back together to identify individuals.

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.

Parks have been posted with advisory warnings but they have not been closed across the city. According to the WSJ report, the privacy advocates are debating on what should the limits to this data collection method be - the data should only be used for the said objective and not for anything else beyond it. With location data, reductions in retail sales and motor vehicle travel can be detected. Government officials in the USA obtain citizens' location information from their mobile ad followers. The whole process is being monitored closely by the White House, and government officials say reports.

LotaData, a San Francisco-based company, launched a portal analyzing movement patters in Italy that could help officials plan for plans to implement in Spain, California and NY. Cellular carriers told the news outlet they have not been asked by the government to provide location data.

Foursquare Labs also in talks with numerous states on how to make use of their data. Some experts believe that it is impossible to anonymize all the data collected, and there should be legal and other safeguards in place to prevent misuse of the data now or in the future after the crisis is over.

The move even extends to research institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launced a project to track volunteer COVID-19 patients through a mobile phone app. Most come from applications users have installed on their phones that allow the tracking of one's location.

There's obviously a privacy scare due to the ongoing location data tracking as the authorities could track movements of people in unwanted locations.

The data from mobile phones can also show which persons are at home when they should be.

Grosser still, regulations for these mobile advertisers have yet to be clearly defined in existing privacy law, particularly since mobile phone users often opt-in to these company's tracking measures and the data shared with authorities contains no identifiable information. That data is protected under much stricter privacy protection under USA law than in most other places.

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