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The value and ethics of using phone data to monitor Covid-19

Google and Facebook are discussing plans with the White House to share collective data on people’s movements during the coronavirus pandemic. Da “Wired”.

Google and Facebook are considering efforts to analyze the collective movements of millions of users to determine how the deadly novel coronavirus is spreading across the US, and to gauge the effectiveness of calls for social distancing.

The results could be shared with government agencies working to head off what could become an unprecedented public health emergency over the next few weeks. Those with knowledge of the plans say every effort is being made to protect user privacy by anonymizing the data. They say a rough picture of how people are gathering and moving around could prove vital to combating the virus, which threatens to overwhelm US hospitals if the current rate of transmission does not change.

Still, the plan may test people’s attitudes toward privacy and government surveillance, amid growing concerns about the ways in which big tech companies track their users. Some companies already share some aggregate data, but it would be new for Google and Facebook to openly mine user movements on this scale for the government. The data collected would show patterns of user movements. It would need to be cross-referenced with data on testing and diagnoses to show how behavior is affecting the spread of the virus.

“As a researcher, I would be interested in analyzing aggregated and anonymized location data related to human behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic crises,” says Marguerite Madden, director of the Center for Geospatial Research at the University of Georgia. “As a private citizen, I would not be comfortable with private companies turning over my location data to governmental agencies unless I was made fully aware of the use of the data and trusted the data would be used as specified in the data agreement.”

Caroline Buckee, an associate professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who has used mobile data to model the spread of contagious diseases overseas, has been involved with the discussions. She says the data may not be especially useful for predicting the spread of the novel coronavirus because it’s not clear how the virus spreads or how many are infected, and because the situation is evolving rapidly.

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