Skip to main content

U.S. government uses mobile location data to track movements during outbreak

The U.S. government is using cellphone location data to track the movements of people during the outbreak of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

Using data from the mobile advertising industry, government officials including those at the federal and state level, as well as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been tracking the public’s movements to better understand how coronavirus is spread. One person involved said that there was a plan to create a portal through which officials could easily track location data for up to 500 U.S. cities, which could be used to check whether people are complying with shelter-in-place orders and staying at home.

The data collected does not include any individually identifying information, such as the name of the person or their phone number. Still, there are privacy concerns about whether the government should have access to so much data revealing the exact movements of people within its borders. Some privacy advocates have argued that even if the data is anonymized, it could be used in combination with other data to identify individuals. And while using the data for the purpose of containing a deadly virus is something most people would support, there’s no way of knowing if government officials will continue to use this data for other purposes once the outbreak is more contained.

On the other hand, the data could be invaluable in slowing the spread of coronavirus by showing areas where large numbers of people are still congregating, such as parks or other public spaces. As an example, the data was used to show that large numbers of people in New York were congregating in Prospect Park in Brooklyn; information which was handed over to the local authorities.

Another approach to this issue is to get people to volunteer their location information to coronavirus researchers. This is the approach taken by the developers of Private Kit: Safe Paths, an open-source tracking app that records your location information to track where infected patients might have come into contact with others. The developers of this app emphasized the need for privacy considerations to be seriously considered when using location data in a white paper, Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
U.S. senator introduces radical bill to protect people’s private data
facebook ftc settlement two factor phone numbers leaked header

A U.S. senator has called for a radical new approach to consumer privacy to be adopted following recent revelations about the sale and misuse of data by various technology companies. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a new bill as an even stronger update to his privacy legislation proposed last year.

The new legislation titled the "Mind Your Own Business Act," would give significant powers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate the sale and sharing of data by companies. It would allow the FTC to establish privacy and security standards and to levy significant fines of up to 4% of annual revenue against companies that do not meet those standards. There would even be an option to impose criminal penalties onto company executives who knowingly lie to the FTC.

Read more
The U.S. military is using solar-powered balloons to spy on parts of the Midwest
Surveillance Balloon

The U.S. military is using surveillance balloons like this one to spy on the Midwest. Image used with permission by copyright holder
The U.S. military is using balloons to monitor activity across six states in the Midwest. The 25 solar-powered balloons are reportedly being used to monitor portions of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
The military filed a Special Temporary Authorization for the balloons with the FCC this week, according to the Guardian. The purpose of the balloons according to that filing is to "conduct high altitude MESH networking tests over South Dakota to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”
The filing was made “Sierra Nevada Corporation” which is an aerospace and defense company. The balloons are being launched from South Dakota, according to the Guardian.
The balloons are capable of tracking multiple individuals or vehicles during the day or night. They’re also already recording, so should an event happen in an area being surveilled by the balloons, they’ll be able to essentially rewind the tape and see what occurred as well as where any potential suspects might have traveled.
Tests with the balloons reportedly began in July and will continue through September. Presumably, if they're successful they might continue after that September stop date or be deployed elsewhere. The balloons travel at height of up to 65,000 feet and can adjust their location if need be to get a better view of a particular person or area or to deal with weather conditions.
The fact that we’re all being watched shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, although the fact that the surveillance is coming from giant un-manned solar-powered balloons is certainly a bit different.
The U.S. government also isn’t the biggest offender when it comes to invading privacy.  For instance, last year we wrote about new video surveillance systems in India that are using AI to detect crimes in process as well as predict a crime before it happens.
The notion of predicting crime before it happens is particularly troublesome in that it is identifying individuals and in a way accusing them of criminal behavior even though at the time they haven’t done anything.
We've reached out to the military for a comment on why this tech is being used specifically in the Midwest and will update this story if and when we hear back.

Read more
Google Pixel 8a vs. Pixel 8: not an easy decision
Renders of the Google Pixel 8a and Pixel 8 next to each other.

Pixel 8a (left) and Pixel 8 Digital Trends

The Google Pixel 8a is now on store shelves, and so far, it seems like yet another fantastic budget phone. Digital Trends' review mentioned that it’s “the cheap Pixel you should buy,” and a quick look at how it performs as a daily driver paints a solid picture of the sheer value it offers.

Read more