Americans are being told to stay at home and keep their distance from others in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. But for populations that can’t or won’t abide by social distancing protocols, government officials are considering using smartphone location data to track individuals and how they might be spreading the disease.
During a paper hearing held Thursday—Congress’ social-distancing method, in which written testimony was submitted to legislators, who then asked questions of the witnesses in writing and gave them 96 days to respond—the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation heard from big data and privacy experts about the potential uses for location data in staving off a pandemic, as well as the potential damage such systems can do to society as a whole if left unchecked.
In his open remarks, committee Chair Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., cited reports of mobile advertising companies using consumer location data to track the spread of the disease.
“This location data is purported to be in aggregate form and anonymized so that it does not contain consumers’ personally identifiable information,” he wrote. “Data scientists are also seeking ways to combine artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies with big data to build upon efforts to track patterns, make diagnoses and identify other environmental or geographic factors affecting the rate of disease transmission.”
While these programs claim to anonymize the data, Wicker stressed the importance of keeping consumers informed about how their data is being used and what steps are taken to ensure bad actors can’t reidentify people using multiple data points.
“There can be little doubt that better access to and analysis of information will play a prominent role in addressing the ongoing pandemic,” wrote Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and co-director of the university’s Tech Policy Lab. “Yet even as we bring to bear the considerable ingenuity of our academic, public, and private institutions, my research into privacy and technology counsels a measure of humility and caution regarding the use of data analytics to address this crisis.”
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