Google gives the world a clearer picture of everything it knows about people around the world – using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users are going and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.
In a blog article published today, the tech giant announced the release of what he calls “COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports”. Internally analyze location data that is much more granular than it maps and tracks to feed its advertising targeting, product development and broader business strategy to present aggregate changes in population movements around the world.
The coronavirus pandemic has generated a global rush of tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has relied on telecommunications operators to transmit anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.
Google’s data dump seems intended to sway a similar idea of the usefulness of public policy while providing an eye-catching public snapshot of mobility changes via data extracted from its global user base.
In terms of real utility for decision makers, Google’s suggestions are quite vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand the changes in essential travel that can shape opening hours recommendations or inform delivery service offerings,” he wrote.
“Likewise, persistent visits to transport centers may indicate the need to add additional buses or trains to allow people in need of travel to disperse for social distancing,” he said. “At the end of the day, understanding not only if people are traveling, but also the trends in destinations, can help policy makers design directions to protect public health and the basic needs of communities.” “
The location data that Google makes public is also fuzzy – to avoid inviting a privacy storm – the company writing that it uses “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use daily in our products”, as it says so.
“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our data sets allowing high quality results without identifying an individual,” Google writes. “The information is created with aggregated and anonymized datasets of users who have enabled the location history setting, which is disabled by default. “
“In Google Maps, we use aggregated and anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are, which helps identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated and anonymized data could be useful as they make crucial decisions to fight COVID-19, “he adds, tacitly tying an existing offer in Google Maps has an anti-coronavirus cause.
Reports consist of downloads by country or state (with 131 countries initially covered), broken down by region / county – with Google providing an analysis of how community mobility has changed compared to a baseline average before arrival of COVID-19. all.
For example, a March 29 report for the entire United States shows a 47% drop in retail and leisure activities compared to the period preceding the CV; a 22% drop in grocery stores and pharmacies; and a 19% drop in park and beach visits, according to Google data.
While the same date report for California shows a considerably larger drop in the latter (down 38% from the regional reference level); and slightly larger declines in retail and leisure activities (down 50%) and in grocery stores and pharmacies (-24%).
Google says it uses “aggregated and anonymized data to track movement patterns over time by geography, in different categories of high-level locations such as retail and entertainment, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residences ”. Trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48 to 72 hours before, he adds.
The company says it does not publish the “absolute number of visits” as a confidentiality step, adding: “To protect the privacy of individuals, no personally identifiable information, such as the location, contacts or movements of a no one is available at any time. “
Google’s report on geographic mobility for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the magnitude of the change from population locks – with retail and entertainment down 94% from Google’s benchmark; grocery and pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.
The same report reports an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity in the workplace; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) in activity in residential areas – as many Italians stay at home, instead of going to work.
It’s a similar story in Spain – another country hard hit by COVID-19. Although Google’s data for France suggests that stay-at-home instructions may not be as well observed by its users, with only an 18% increase in activity on residential sites and a decrease in 56% of activity in the workplace. (Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although the number of confirmed cases and deaths continues to increase in the region.)
As policymakers have struggled to find data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties activists have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of these efforts fueled by data on individual rights, while questioning the wider usefulness of some of this monitoring.
Contact tracing is another area where apps are quickly touted as a potential solution for breaking the West out of people’s economic deadlocks – opening up the possibility that people’s mobile devices become a tool for enforcing locks, like this happened in China.
“Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,” is the brief warning of a trio of academics from the Computational Privacy Group of Imperial College London, who have compiled their concerns about of confidentiality with regard to COVID-19 contacts. in a set of eight questions that application developers should ask.
Discussing the publication by Google of mobile location data for a COVID-19 cause, the head of the group, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, gave a general boost to measures taken to reduce risks to privacy. Although it has also asked Google to provide more details on the technical processes it uses so that external researchers can better assess the robustness of the claimed privacy protections. Such a review is of urgent importance with so many coronavirus-related data seizures going on right now, he argues.
“Everything is aggregated; they normalize to a specific set of dates; they threshold when there are too few people and in addition they add noise to make – according to them – the data differentially private. So from an anonymity point of view, this is good work, “de Montjoye told TechCrunch, discussing the technical side of Google’s release of location data. “These are three of the great” levers “that you can use to limit risk. And I think it’s well done. “
“But – especially at times like this, when a lot of people are using data – I think what we would have liked is more detail. There are a lot of assumptions about thresholding, about how to apply differential confidentiality, right? … What kind of assumptions do you make? He added, asking for example how much noise Google adds to the data. “It would be nice to have a little more detail on how they applied [differential privacy]… Especially at times like this, it’s good to be … too transparent. “
Although the publication of Google’s mobility data may appear to overlap in its objective with the Commission’s call for European telecommunications metadata for COVID-19 tracking, de Montjoye points out that there are probably key differences based on different data sources.
“It’s always a compromise between the two,” he says. “This is essentially telecommunications data which would probably be less precise, since GPS is much more precise in space and you could have more data points per person per day with GPS than what you get with a mobile phone, but on the other hand, the operator’s data telecom are much more representative – it’s not just a smartphone, and it’s not just people who have latitude, it’s everyone in the country, including non-smartphones. “
There could also be country-specific issues that could be better addressed by working with a local carrier, he also suggested. (The Commission has stated that it intends to have one carrier per EU Member State providing anonymized and aggregated metadata.)
On the topical question of whether location data can ever be truly anonymized, de Montjoye – an expert in data re-identification – replied “yes and no”, arguing that the original location data is “probably very , very difficult to anonymize ”.
“Can you process this data and make the aggregated results anonymous?” Probably, probably, probably yes – it always depends. But it also means that the original data exists… Then, it is mainly about the controls that you have put in place to guarantee that the process leading to the generation of these aggregates does not involve risks for the private life ”, he added.
A more important issue related to the dump of Google’s location data may be the issue of legal consent to follow people in the first place.
Tech giant claims data is based on location tracking opt-ins, the company was fined $ 57 million by France’s data watchdog last year for a lack of transparency about how it uses people’s data.
Then, earlier this year, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) – now Google’s main privacy regulator in Europe – confirmed a formal investigation into activity tracking the location of the business, following a complaint filed in 2018 by European consumer groups who accuse Google of using manipulation tools. tactics to keep track of user locations for advertising targeting.
“The issues raised by the concerns relate to the legality of the processing of location data by Google and the transparency surrounding this processing,” said the DPC in a statement in February announcing the investigation.
Legal issues weighing on Google’s consent to track people likely explain the repeated references in its blog post to people who choose to register and have the option to clear their location history via settings. (“Users who have enabled location history can choose to disable the setting at any time from their Google Account and can still delete location history data directly from their timeline,” he wrote in an example. )
In addition to offering the mobility of coronaviruses porn reports – which Google says it will continue to do throughout the crisis – the company says it is collaborating with “selected epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with updates to an existing aggregated and anonymous dataset which can be used to better understand and predict the pandemic. ”
“Data like this has helped researchers study forecasted epidemics, plan urban and public transport infrastructure, and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” he adds. .