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Location tracking to combat COVID-19 may not be accurate enough to be effective, says ACLU

Location tracking to combat COVID-19 may not be accurate enough to be effective, says ACLU
[Photo: Daryan Shamkhali/Unsplash]

The use of location tracking to combat the novel coronavirus—by checking to see if people are maintaining a safe distance from each other, for example—has gained traction in recent weeks. Three weeks ago, it was reported that the White House was in active talks with Facebook, Google, and public health experts about using location data obtained from users’ phones. This past weekend, two data firms showed just how that tool might work by tracking location data from the phones of spring breakers and others who visited a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in March and posting the map on Twitter.

But the use of location tracking raises serious questions. In addition to privacy concerns, it could easily be misused by third parties, and it might not even be that effective. In a new report, the ACLU asserts that any use of such data “should be temporary, restricted to public health agencies and purposes, and should make greatest possible use of available techniques that allow for privacy and anonymity to be protected even as the data is used.”

The ACLU cites several reasons to be cautious about the approach to such a technique—which can be gathered through cell location data, GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and QR codes:

  • The location data is not accurate enough for contact tracing. “We have spoken with engineers and executives at a number of the largest U.S. companies that hold location data on Americans’ movements and locations, and generally they have told us that their data is not suitable for determining who was in contact with whom for purposes of Covid contact tracing,” reports the ACLU.
  • It’s unlikely the algorithms will be reliable, since it’s difficult to translate that data into reliable estimates. The ACLU cites the example of Israel, whose government recently revealed that it was keeping detailed cellphone location records on its citizens, but is limited in its effectiveness. A woman who simply waved at her infected boyfriend from outside his apartment building was issued a quarantine order because the Israeli system flagged her as a contact.
  • The data only reflect a slice of existing data pools and can be biased, since not all populations and demographics are represented equally.
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