White House turns to tech giants to use location data to fight COVID-19

Privacy concerns take a back seat as the tech heavyweights work with the Trump administration to fight the coronavirus threat.
18 March 2020

US President Donald Trump holds up tweets from Google as he speaks during a press briefing about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Source: AFP

The US government is in active talks with the likes of Facebook, Google, and a host of other top technology firms about combating the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus by using location data from smartphones – including the tracking of individual movements and group movements.

The report from the Washington Post states that the government is working with public health officials as well as companies from the private sector that have access to data that could be utilized to map the advancement of the deadly and highly transmittable disease.

This latest report comes in the wake of some of the largest collaborative efforts between Silicon Valley giants in response to the global pandemic which has, as of the time of writing, infected just over 200,000 people across the globe.

Last week, reps from Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft all met to discuss the outbreak and possible measures.

After years of a fairly adversarial relationship with Silicon Valley (which has seen sanctions imposed on both Google and Apple) it appears the gravity of containing COVID-19 has spurred the White House to take more immediate action in liaising with the tech stalwarts, including Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos.

The current White House administration is particularly interested in being able to identify human movement patterns, which could be accessed from smartphones which have allowed for the collection of location data in the past.

Facebook has previously shared this statistical data in an anonymous form to researchers, with the intention to aid in predicting the next possible hot zone for infection, or to help distribute crisis support resources to the more likely locations.

Google also confirmed this week that the Mountain View giant has been having ongoing talks with government officials, health experts, and their fellow tech giants. The company’s spokesman says it has been working to mine its own location data (of which, Google’s widely-used map applications, Google Maps and Waze, will have plenty of).

The company spokesman, Johnny Lu, emphasized that any data shared with any other party will “…not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.” He claims only aggregated anonymous location information will be made available in order to more effectively handle COVID-19.

Privacy concerns will always be a factor, however, but the ongoing virus outbreak seems to have brought out the best collaborative spirit between the government and the big tech companies, in the best interests of the public.