Is the federal government about to grab everyone’s smartphone data in order to track the spread of COVID-19?
Multiple reports suggest that the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are endeavoring to do just that.
To that end, U.S. officials are currently in talks with tech leaders like Facebook, Apple, and Google, which could assist in tracking people’s whereabouts using their phones’ location data.
Yet, fearing the wrath of privacy advocates, tech companies are stressing the fact that any data they share will be completely anonymous.
“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19,” a Google spokesperson told Bloomberg this week.
Among other potential scenarios, Google said it could imagine sharing anonymized data with federal agencies to assess the impact of social distancing.
It’s “similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” the Google spokesperson said.
However, actions being taken by other governments make seizing people’s location data sound less innocuous.
For example, the Israeli government just decided to let its security agencies track the location data of citizens suspected of having COVID-19.
As the BBC reported this week, “The new powers will be used to enforce quarantine and warn those who may have come into contact with infected people.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel condemned the emergency measure as “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope,” according to the BBC.
There is currently no indication that the U.S. government is planning such draconian measures, but plans are changing rapidly as policymakers learn more about the risks posed by COVID-19.
Reporting on the story this week, The Washington Post cited multiple sources who said that the U.S. government’s intention is not to build a database of users’ location data.
However, people’s trust in the Trump administration and tech giants is dangerously low.
Indeed, only 37% of Americans say they have a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they’re hearing from the president, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published this week.
By contrast, 60% of Americans have no trust at all or not very much trust in what Trump is saying, the research found.
As for tech companies, nearly half of Americans believe that they’re creating more problems than they are solving, while only 15% think the opposite is true, according to a recent Knight Foundation and Gallup study.