How Location Data Could Play A Role In Dealing With The COVID-19 Crisis

From electronic fences in Taiwan to mobile alerts in Israel, nations are finding innovative approaches to monitor the outbreak

Illustrator by Lee M. Binder /

A week ago, as COVID-19 walked the world over, a developing number of governments started to investigate the utilization of our cellphone data to monitor the outbreak. Utilizing location data, Israel sent alerts to residents believed to have been exposed to the infection requesting them to self-isolate. In Britain, authorities analyzed anonymized data from telecom provider O2 to decide the degree to which the masses had deployed social distancing. Also, in the US, Google talked about sharing location data with health authorities for similar purposes.

In the days since, we’ve become familiar with how location data has been deployed in the battle against COVID-19. Maybe the most sensational example to date is in Taiwan, where authorities have conveyed an “electronic fence” around quarantined households — alarming police if citizens under quarantine leave the home or even turn off their phones. Here’s Yimou Lee in Reuters:

Jyan said specialists will contact or visit the individuals who trigger an alarm within 15 minutes. Authorities likewise call two times a day to ensure individuals don’t avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

Privacy concerns have restricted the utilization of location data for anti-coronavirus endeavors in nations, for example, the US. But the system has drawn few complaints in Taiwan, which has only reported 108 cases of the virus, compared with more than 80,900 in neighboring China.

Among the system’s fans is Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, who notes that by implementing what Americans might typically think of as dystopian surveillance measures, Taiwanese citizens currently enjoy more freedoms than many Americans:

Life here is normal. Kids are in school, restaurants are open, the grocery stores are well-stocked. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the rather shocking assertions of government authority and surveillance that make this possible, all of which I would have decried a few months ago, feels pretty liberating even as it is troubling. We need to talk about this!

Of course, the fear is that by enabling such surveillance during a crisis, you will forever ratchet down the amount of liberty Americans enjoy during normal times. Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun explored this possibility in the New York Times in a piece on how different countries are using location data:

“We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a not-for-profit organization in Manhattan.

For instance, he highlighted a law sanctioned by New York State this month that gives Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo boundless authority to govern by executive order during state crisis like pandemics and typhoons. The law permits him to issue emergency response directives that could overrule any local regulations.

But at the time, I speculate numerous Americans would take crisis responsive directives from Cuomo over those from the president, who has (surprisingly) called for separated Americans to come back to work by Easter and proceeded today to make misleading comparisons between COVID-19 and the much less dangerous seasonal flu.

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Progressively, calls for diminished civil liberties to confront the crisis are coming from unexpected places. Maciej Cegłowski, the developer behind bookmarking site Pinboard and, in his own words, “a privacy activist who has been riding a variety of high horses about the dangers of permanent, ubiquitous data collection since 2012,” is one that caught my attention.

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Ceglowski is a mordantly funny writer and a pointed critic of Big Tech data collection. (In one of my favorite of his pieces, he compares the long-term storage of user data favored by technology companies to toxic waste.) In a new piece on Monday, he argued for an Israeli-style alert system that uses mobile location data to enable contact tracing and order those likely exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine. Ceglowski writes:

Of course, all of this would come at an enormous cost to our privacy. This is usually the point in an essay where I’d break out the old Ben Franklin quote: “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”
But this proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn’t already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

He includes that this system might be better conceived as a public-private partnership, and argues that any such use of our data be limited to the current emergency. “I continue to believe that living in a surveillance society is incompatible in the long term with liberty,” Ceglowski writes. “But a prerequisite of liberty is physical safety. If temporarily conscripting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it, and make full use of it.”
In the meantime, surveillance capitalism continues to do its thing. In the Washington Post, Geoffrey Fowler rounds up a variety of existing corporate efforts to quantify our social distancing routines. Something called Unacast, for example, has posted a “social distancing scoreboard” that awards states and counties letter grades based on the amount by which citizens have decreased their travel compared to normal levels. This is not, strictly speaking, what social distancing means — you don’t have to travel far to get within 6 feet of someone and infect them — but it’s … something. Anyway, how did they get this data? Fowler writes:

Efforts to track public health during the coronavirus pandemic are a reminder of the many ways phones reveal our personal lives, both as individuals and in the aggregate. Unacast’s location data comes from games, shopping and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones — information the company normally analyzes for retailers, real estate firms and marketers. It’s part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.

Honestly, most of these corporate efforts have a trying in vain feel to them. The real technology we need to solve the crisis is the kind you find in scaled-up testing, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. And any technology solutions have to be accompanied by strong leadership from the federal government — the kind that has been in startlingly short stockpile recently.

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Still, I’m increasingly persuaded that location data could be part of a solution to emerge from the pandemic. I will be intrigued to see whether, in the weeks to follow, the tech giants come to agree.


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