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Published on August 02, 2021

How people move during coronavirus pandemic

A man checks his phone in Times Square. Cell phone data used by the government shows which public spaces are still drawing crowds.

WASHINGTON – Government officials across the U.S. are using location data from millions of cell phones to better understand the movements of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic and its potential impact on the spread of the disease. The federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments, has begun obtaining analyses of the presence and movement of people in specific areas of geographic interest from cell phone data, according to people familiar with the matter. The data comes from the mobile advertising industry rather than wireless carriers. The goal is to create a portal for federal, state and local officials that will include geolocation data in potentially as many as 500 cities across the U.S., one of the people said, to help plan response to the epidemic. Using the data, which does not identify information such as the name of a phone’s owner, officials can learn how the coronavirus is spreading across the country to mitigate its progress. It shows which retail stores, parks and other public areas still draw crowds that could accelerate transmission of the virus. In one such case, researchers noted that New Yorkers were gathering in large numbers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and passed that information on to local authorities, one person said. Warning signs have been posted in New York City parks, but they have not yet been closed.

The data can also show the overall level of compliance with orders to stay home or stay safe, according to experts inside and outside the government, and help measure the economic impact of the pandemic by showing declines in store customers, car miles traveled and other economic metrics. The CDC has begun to receive analysis based on location data through an ad hoc coalition of technology companies and data providers, all working with the White House and other government officials. The CDC and White House did not respond to requests for comment. The growing reliance on location data from cell phones continues to raise privacy concerns, especially when programs are operated or commissioned by governments. Wolfie Christl, a privacy activist and researcher, said the location data industry is “covidwashing” products that typically violate privacy.

“In the face of looming disaster, it may make sense in some cases to use aggregate analytics based on consumer data, even if the data is collected secretly or illegally by companies,” Christl said. “Because true anonymization of location data is nearly impossible, strong legal protections are imperative.” The protections should limit how the data can be used and ensure that it is not later used for other purposes, he said.

Data privacy advocates fear that even anonymized data could be used in combination with other publicly available information to identify and track individuals.

Some companies in the U.S. location data industry have made their data or analytics available to the public or made their raw data available to researchers or governments. San Francisco-based LotaData launched a public portal to analyze movement patterns within Italy that could help authorities plan for outbreaks, and it plans additional portals for Spain, California, and New York. The company Unacast launched a public “Social Distancing Scoreboard” that uses location data to rate places on how well their populations follow instructions to be at home.

Other state and local governments have also begun commissioning their own studies and analyses from private companies. Foursquare Labs Inc, one of the largest providers of location data said it is in talks with numerous state and local governments about using its data.

Researchers and governments around the world have used a patchwork of authorities and tactics to collect cellphone data – sometimes hoping for voluntary consent from companies or individuals, in other cases using laws meant for terrorism or other emergencies to collect vast amounts of data on citizens to combat the threat of the coronavirus.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have launched a project to track Covid 19 volunteers via a cell phone app. Telecommunications companies in Germany, Austria, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and other countries have shared data with authorities to help fight the pandemic. Israel’s intelligence agencies have been tapped to map infections using anti-terror phone tracking technology.

In the U.S., most of the data used to date has come from the advertising industry. The mobile marketing industry has billions of geographic data points on hundreds of millions of U.S. mobile devices – mainly from applications that users have installed on their phones and whose location may be tracked. Huge amounts of this advertising data are for sale.

The industry is largely unregulated under existing privacy laws because consumers have consented to tracking and because the data does not include names or addresses – each consumer is represented by an alphanumeric string.

Wireless carriers also have access to massive amounts of geolocation data, which enjoys much stricter privacy protections under U.S. law than in most other countries. The largest U.S. carriers including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. say they have not been approached by the government to provide location data, according to spokesmen. There have been discussions about trying to obtain U.S. telecommunications data for this purpose, but the legality of such a move is not clear.


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