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Wait, we agreed to this? Cell data being used to track social distancing

Cellphone owners are already being tracked by their cell network carrier and private companies have begun using that data to track how counties are following social distancing practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Popular apps already track users’ locations to provide more convenient service. Snapchat has SnapMap, which allows users to see where their friends are and Instagram will automatically tag a location if a user posts a photo without doing it themselves. 

Northern Illinois University professor David Gunkel said this technology is not uncommon, nor is it difficult to use. Most cellphone applications ask for the right to use data location services in the terms of service, which can be overlooked.

“When you download an app like Whatsapp or TikTok, many of these apps use geolocation to offer consumers convenience so they can find friends or places,” Gunkel said. “They share your geolocation. In most cases, these are things that everyone is opted into by default.”

Google releases this data every few days as a part of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, available with a quick search for “Google mobility data.” It provides numbers that explain whether Illinois residents are traveling or not.

Illinois resident travel is down 53% for retail and recreation, down 24% for grocery and pharmacy trips and down 29% for trips to parks. Travel to workplaces is down 39% and travel to other residences are up 13% from where they were on Feb. 16.

Google says on its website, “no personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.”

Gunkel said the only way to stop sharing geolocation data is by going into a phone’s settings and unmarking the checkbox that allows for data sharing.

“Another way that geolocation data is taken is through your cell company,” Gunkel said. “They know where you are at all times. When you go from cell tower to cell tower, your signal transfers, so they now know where your device is. AT&T, Verizon, they all ostensibly know where all devices that use their services are located.”

Gunkel said this data is used for products like Google Maps, which can show what traffic is like on busier roads.

This is based on anonymized data that determines data concentration at a certain point on the road. Anyone using the data doesn’t have access to identifying information as to where specific people are located.

“Places where there are specific identifiers, like Singapore or South Korea, are requiring a specific app for tracking whereabouts in regards to virus protection,” Gunkel said. “It would need to be deliberate to get person information; right now, all of this information stays with private companies.”

Gunkel said there would need to be a law change to allow the government to use this data: Americans will have to decide whether they want to trade privacy for safety.

“This virus is going to be a short-term thing in relative terms and we have to think about whether or not we want to trade privacy for security,” Gunkel said. “What are the civil liberty implications downstream depending on what laws are passed? This is the problem. I would be concerned with anything that doesn’t have an expiration date.”

Gunkel said handling the issue becomes complicated because each jurisdiction is going to push out their own laws in a piecemeal fashion, which makes cooperation among jurisdictions complex because the problem is global.

“One way that is being used right now is the modeling approach,” Gunkel said. “You can find where people are congregating during a time of quarantine and use this data to see if people are staying home, or if they’re going to beaches or bars.”

Gunkel said there are draconian measures like what is seen in South Korea, which would be constant tracking. The issue he sees in this method is that not everyone has a cellphone. In order for this process to work, every person in America would need to own a device that could be tracked.

He mentioned that the problem is similar to the one public schools face now that they’ve moved to online education. Too many families don’t have access to a computer or a tablet with internet connectivity, impeding its impact.

“This solution has big limitations and it won’t be a silver bullet,” Gunkel said. “Another issue is privacy. We are aware of the fact that these devices do trade privacy for convenience but now we’re talking trading privacy for safety. There’s not a lot of good privacy law that protects consumers from these transactions. We’re developing tools for security without regulation in place.”

Gunkel said Illinois and California have strong privacy protections in place that would protect consumers but these protections don’t follow everywhere, and the federal government is particularly weak when it comes to privacy protections. 

“I see the ramp on this being really quick and really steep,” Gunkel said. “Infections here already exceed everywhere and we haven’t been testing widely. When testing gets more robust, we’ll have greater numbers than we had, and people will be afraid. When there is that kind of desire, technology often becomes a very attractive response. It seems like a really simple way to get security without getting a whole lot of effort.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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