Google to release user location data to help governments fight viruses

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PARIS – Google will release location data for its users around the world on Friday to allow governments to assess the effectiveness of social distancing measures put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, said the tech giant .

Reports on user movements in 131 countries will be available on a special website and “will trace movement trends over time by geography,” according to an article in one of the company’s blogs.

Trends will show “increase or decrease in percentage point of visits” to places like parks, stores, homes and workplaces, not “absolute number of visits,” said message, signed by Jen Fitzpatrick, who runs Google Maps, and corporate health chief Karen DeSalvo.

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“We hope these reports will help support decisions on how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said.

“This information could help managers understand changes in essential travel that can shape opening hours recommendations or inform delivery service offerings.”

Like traffic jam detection or traffic measurement on Google Maps, the new reports will use “aggregated and anonymized” data from users who have activated their location history.


A man wearing a protective mask looks at his cell phone in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 2, 2020. (Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

No “personally identifiable information”, such as a person’s location, contacts or movements, will be made available, the publication said.

The reports will also use a statistical technique that adds “artificial noise” to the raw data, making it more difficult to identify users.

From China to Singapore to Israel, governments have ordered electronic surveillance of the movements of their citizens to limit the spread of the virus, which has infected more than a million people and killed more than 50,000 people worldwide .

Tech companies in Europe and the United States have started sharing “anonymized” smartphone data to better track the epidemic.

Even privacy-loving Germany is considering using a smartphone app to help manage the spread of the disease.

But activists say authoritarian regimes are using the coronavirus as a pretext to suppress independent speech and increase surveillance.

And in liberal democracies, others fear that large-scale data collection and intrusion may cause lasting harm to privacy and digital rights.



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