The fight against the global pandemic has brought us at an important crossroad: we’ve seen that surveillance can be used to understand the outbreak and enforce an efficient quarantine, but on the other hand, how much information about our location and habits do we really want to give companies and governments? It’s a decision that should not be taken lightly and may be consequential for decades.
For better or for worse, we already provide a ton of our information to tech companies — willingly. The data we give to Google Maps, for instance, can show us how the world is responding to the quarantine.
Using this information in an anonymized fashion can be instrumental in helping decisionmakers see how the quarantine is being respected and how it is affecting communities. In turn, this can be used to make more efficient plans for our long upcoming fight with COVID-19.
If your GPS is on and it’s sharing data with Google Maps, the app has a general idea not only where people are and what they are doing, but what kind of places we like to go to. It’s not perfect, but Google Maps has a pretty good understanding of what different places are, whether they’re a restaurant or a supermarket or something else. Many smartphone owners share this information without a second thought.
This can have some advantages. In normal times, Google Maps might recommend a bar near us that we’d enjoy, or tell us that the street to our favorite supermarket is closed for renovation. In the current pandemic times, this information can be used to gather valuable insights about how much people are socially distancing and how a community is affected by the quarantine.
Google has recently announced that it will publish national mobility reports, for most of the countries on the planet to aid governments attempting to draft COVID-19 policies.
“We hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Google execs said.
“This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.”
The data is anonymized and presented in a generalistic fashion. No “personally identifiable information,” such as an individual’s location, contacts or movements, will be made available, the post said. To make sure that there is no identifiable information in the data, the reports will also use a statistical noise-adding technique, making it harder to identify any individual aspects of the data (ie a big mall in a relatively small community).
For instance, trends display “a percentage point increase or decrease in visits” to locations like parks, shops, homes and places of work, not “the absolute number of visits,” said the post, signed by Jen Fitzpatrick, who leads Google Maps, and the company’s chief health officer Karen DeSalvo.
The data is telling. In France, for instance, retail and recreation visits have dropped by 88%. Initially, local shops saw an increase of 40%, as people preferred local shops to farther-away supermarkets — but after this initial surge, local shops also dropped by 72%.
Of course, user tracking opens up a major can of worms that was problematic even before the pandemic. Now, given the current strain, multiple technology firms have begun sharing anonymized smartphone data to better track the outbreak. In several countries (including Taiwan and South Korea), this type of surveillance was also enforced, and we’re seeing some European countries considering it as well.
We’ve already seen, in countries such as Hungary or Israel, that the pandemic can be used to erode democracy and impose authoritarian leaders. Data harvesting and intrusion could bring lasting harm to privacy and digital rights, gnawing at our privacy and human rights.
Multiple researchers and advocacy groups have warned against offering tech companies and governments too much surveillance power. Of course, we need all the help we can get against this invisible threat, but as a society, we must ensure that we don’t offer up our privacy on a silver platter.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.