US Government Tracking COVID-19 Coronavirus Spread Using Mobile Ad Location Data

Ruben Fields
March 31, 2020

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has teamed up with state and local governments across America to track people's mobile phone location data and trace the novel coronavirus's spread, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.

It would show which destinations are still being frequented by large crowds that could help spread the coronavirus, people familiar with the matter explained.

For anyone living in the United States right now could be a subject to mass surveillance according to a new report by The Wall Street Journal.

However, it is stated that the data is transmitted by anonymizing the users.

The White House and CDC have not yet commented on this story. According to the WSJ report, the privacy advocates are debating on what should the limits to this data collection method be - the data should only be used for the said goal and not for anything else beyond it.

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The industry is mostly unregulated under privacy laws that are now in existence as consumers have signed off on tracking and because most data does not contain sensitive information. Since social distancing is key to stopping the spread of the virus, this data could help the government identify crowded hotspots and take preventative action. The governments elsewhere, including those in Europe, China, Singapore, South Korea, and even India have devised methods to extract the mobile phone data from the local carriers and monitor the citizens in their countries. Most come from applications users have installed on their phones that allow the tracking of one's location. Some of the largest telecom service providers of US AT&T and Verizon Communications have said that they have not yet been approached by government officials to provide their data.

The use of even anonymized data raises myriad privacy concerns, and privacy advocates demand limits on how such data can be used and prevent its use for other purposes, WSJ reported. While it sounds good in this way, the idea that mobile ad data is being used to track is a huge invasion of privacy.

The goal of collecting it is to create a portal with data from more than 500 US cities to help government officials plan a response to COVID-19. At present, the tech companies probably Facebook and Google are helping the government with the data as well as mobile ad providers while telecom carriers reportedly are now out of the loop and aren't sharing any data at least at the time of writing this blog. All four carriers said they put an end to agreements with location data aggregators and T-Mobile and AT&T had said they would fight the FCC findings. The experts fear that the ad industries providing this data to the USA government are mostly unregulated.

What are officials and tech companies saying?

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