Published On: Fri, Mar 20th, 2020

Tech companies could face more pressure to share location data with governments to fight coronavirus


By now most Americans have gotten the message that, as much as possible, they need to stay away from everyone else. In San Francisco and a growing number of other cities around the world, all non-essential travel has been banned. Even in cases where life more closely resembles normalcy, the government has encouraged social distancing. And if anyone in your life isn’t yet under self-quarantine, sending them this brutal essay by Jeff Wise ought to do the trick. It’s a plausible account of how you might contract COVID-19 even while doing your best to wash your hands and minimize social contacts; the prose is so sharp and severe that I almost found it cruel.

OK, so you’re social distancing; I’m social distancing. How’s everyone else doing? It’s a question we all have a vested interest in answering, from government and elected officials managing the outbreak to everyday citizens wondering how long we’re all going to be caged up. But the fatally slow rollout of testing in the United States has made it much harder than it should be to trace the path of the disease throughout the country. And so the government has begun to consider other solutions.

Tech solutions.

Here’s Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin, and Craig Timberg this week in the Washington Post:

The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

You don’t have to be a dues-paying member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to shiver at some of the implications here. The government is going to monitor your location to ensure you’re staying a safe distance away from people most of the time? Even if the data was anonymized as promised, it still might seem like a dangerous precedent to set. When else might the government ask to track our phones?

Given the sensitivity people have had lately around the potential misuse of their Facebook data in particular, it makes sense that this was the first question Mark Zuckerberg got yesterday during his briefing with the press. As it turns out, Facebook has made aggregated, anonymized location data available to academic researchers. Issie Lapowsky wrote about the program on Tuesday in Protocol:

Andrew Schroeder is vice president of research and analysis at Direct Relief, an international disaster relief organization based in Santa Barbara. Since 2017, Schroeder has been using mapping tools developed by Facebook’s Data for Good team to track population movements during natural disasters and disease outbreaks. These maps use aggregated, de-identified location data from Facebook users who have location history turned on in their Facebook apps. Some 125 nonprofits and research institutions around the world have access to them. Schroeder has used them to track evacuation efforts during California’s wildfires and map the cholera outbreak in Mozambique.

But as social distancing efforts have swept the country over the last week, Schroeder began to realize that the same tools he’s used to track where people in crisis are moving could also be used to track whether they’re staying put.

Schroeder told Protocol that he plans to begin sharing a daily briefing with the California Department of Public Health with his findings.

But Facebook isn’t sharing data directly with the government. “We’re not aware of any active conversations or asks with the U.S. or other governments at this point asking for access to that data directly,” Zuckerberg said on Wednesday’s call. “So I think some of those reports might have just been rehashing the disease prevention maps projects that we’ve been doing in the past.”

That would seem to explain the Facebook part of the story. But how about Google? Here’s what the company said when I asked. (It was the same thing the company told the Post.)

“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps. This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts. We will provide more details when available.”

I’m told that this work is in the very early stages of development. At the moment, Google hasn’t shared any anonymized location data with the government, and has no plans to join in on an industry effort should one materialize.

In short, whatever conversations may have been had between Big Tech and the government recently, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to lead to the direct sharing of location data. Still, Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA, sent a letter to the office of the chief technology officer of the United States on Thursday with questions about how the CTO planned to use any such data. “Although I agree that we must use technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector to combat the coronavirus, we cannot embrace action that represents a wholesale privacy invasion, particularly when it involves highly sensitive and personal location information.”

Of course, other governments have no such compunctions about the use of surveillance. For example, here’s the scene in Israel, according to the Post’s Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash:

Four hundred Israelis looked at their cellphones Wednesday night and discovered just how closely their government is keeping tabs on them during the coronavirus crisis. The country’s Health Ministry had sent tailored text alerts telling citizens that a digital review of their movements showed they had been in proximity to a person known to have tested positive for the virus.

It was not just an advisory. The text also delivered an instant quarantine order, in keeping with ever tightening restrictions dictated by the Israeli government. “You must immediately go into isolation [for 14 days] to protect your relatives and the public,” the notice said.

And here’s what’s happening in England, via Sky News’ Alexander Martin:

The government is working with mobile network O2 to analyse anonymous smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines, Sky News has learned.

Ministers and officials believe they can use anonymous mobile phone location data to analyse how Londoners have reacted to its guidance on social distancing and the new transport restrictions.

One lesson from all this is that if a tech giant ever tells a government that it can’t have a data set, there’s likely a telecom in that country that will be happy to give it away or sell it. Another is that we’re about to learn a lot about the effectiveness of varying technological approaches to addressing the pandemic. Again, it would be best for everyone in the United States if the company began testing people for COVID-19 with the diligence that other modern nations have. But if that effort continues to lag, we would do well to push harder on developing alternatives.

Pushback

In yesterday’s column, I wrote that if Facebook and its CEO could take questions from the press about the company’s COVID-19 response, so could the other big tech companies that now make up a vital part of our national infrastructure: Amazon, Google, and Twitter. I also tweeted as much, and to my pleasant surprise, got a tweet back from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

I’m glad to hear it — and, of course, will bring you whatever transpires from that briefing here in this space.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: TikTok is partnering with After-School All-Stars to donate $3 million to help families who’ve lost access to free or reduced-cost school meals due the coronavirus pandemic.

Trending up: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic project the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is collaborating with UCSF to expand COVID-19 testing in the Bay Area.

Trending up: YouTube is launching a specific section for COVID-19 news to give people more access to reliable information about the crisis.

Trending up: Snap is rolling out its Here For You search tool a bit earlier than planned to help users who may be feeling anxious or stressed over the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic

More than 8 million people who live in Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, are unable to get reliable information about the coronavirus pandemic because the government is slowing down the internet. Pranav Dixit has the sad story at BuzzFeed:

A new government order, which was released Tuesday, has extended the region’s existing restrictions on internet speed until March 26 to “prevent misuse of social media applications” and following “recent terror activities” in the region. But locals said that the restrictions on internet speed are unacceptable at a time when access to timely and reliable information about the coronavirus is crucial.

“I can’t open even basic websites that provide information and advice about the pandemic,” Nayeem Rather, a freelance writer based in Srinagar, the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, told BuzzFeed News. “Most people in Kashmir don’t really have any information about the coronavirus or what is going on in the world right now. It’s a crisis.”

More than half of Californians could be infected by the coronavirus within the next eight weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a letter to the president asking for aid. (Taryn Luna / Los Angeles Times)

Twitter is relying more heavily on AI to flag content that violates its policies while staff stays home due to the novel coronavirus. It’s an effort to suppress misinformation — but how bad will the false positives be? (Twitter)

Amazon is scrambling to improve its warehouse safety after employees spoke out about potentially dangerous conditions given the outbreak of the coronavirus. The company will no longer force warehouse workers to gather in closely packed groups for “stand up” meetings before every shift. (Caroline O’Donovan and Ken Bensinger / BuzzFeed)

Sadly, Amazon also confirmed the first case of coronavirus at one of its American warehouses. Workers at the company’s warehouse in Queens, New York were informed of the news in a text message. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Uber said rides are down as much as 70 percent in cities like Seattle due to the novel coronavirus. The company is considering leveraging its network to deliver medicine or other basic goods. (Ingrid Lunden / TechCrunch)

Coronavirus testing is in short supply in areas of the country, but some celebrities have been able to get tested without even exhibiting symptoms. The situation has prompted a debate about access and elitism, and whether those who are well-connected go to the front of the line. (Megan Twohey, Steve Eder and Marc Stein / The New York Times)

Scammers are trying to trick people into reserving a COVID-19 vaccine over the phone. They’re pretending to be from the Centers for Disease Control and asking for peoples’ credit card and social security numbers. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Facebook is putting review of augmented reality filters on hold during the crisis. It’s an effect of sending most of its contracted content moderators home.

Netflix is slowing down in Europe to keep the internet from breaking. The move comes in response to an unprecedented uptick in internet usage since more people started staying in their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Hadas Gold / CNN)

This Q&A on how to practice social distancing from New Yorker ace interviewer Isaac Chotiner is really helpful for understanding what you can and cannot do right now.

Coronavirus has split people into two factions: Those who can afford to offload their risk of becoming infected with a deadly pandemic onto others, and those who deliver food and other goods to their homes. (Jason Koebler / Vice)

Even in the middle of a national emergency, some companies are still asking employees to come into the office to work for questionable reasons. (Polly Mosendz / Bloomberg)

Coronavirus influencers are springing up as social media continues to elevate the voices of some people speaking out about the crisis, regardless of whether or not they have a background in medicine or public health. (Ryan Broderick / BuzzFeed)

Social media platforms have been unexpectedly reliable in spreading information about the coronavirus pandemic. But they’ve also made coronavirus content impossible to escape. (Amanda Hess / The New York Times)

What does coming back to work from coronavirus look like? Zheping Huang shares the view from China. (Zheping Huang / Bloomberg)

PSA: 40 percent of coronavirus hospitalizations so far have been for people ages 20 to 54.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) temporarily waived rules in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs to help promote better access to broadband for remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. (Marguerite Reardon / CNET)

Microsoft Teams usage rose nearly 40 percent in a week as more businesses turn to remote work. The company is planning to introduce a new real-time noise suppression feature for Teams meetings later this year. (Tom Warren / The Verge)

Governing

Trump signed off on a new coronavirus aid bill. The measure provides free coronavirus testing and ensures paid emergency leave for those who are infected or caring for a family member with the illness. Here’s Lauren Egan at NBC:

The aid package sent to Trump on Wednesday is the second emergency bill that Congress has passed in recent weeks. Last week, the Senate approved an $8.3 billion House-passed measure that focused on vaccine research and development.

With passage of the second emergency bill Wednesday, Senate Republicans are turning their attention to what they are calling the third phase of the coronavirus response: a $1 trillion spending proposal from the White House that would include $500 billion in direct payments to Americans.

Joe Biden postponed a virtual fundraiser until next week following technical difficulties with an online town hall. The campaign has moved to virtual events as the coronavirus continues to spread. (Brian Schwartz / CNBC)

A mathematical model of how coronavirus could reshape the United States in the coming months. (William Wan, Joel Achenbach, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Ben Guarino / The Washington Post)

Elon Musk tweeted that he’s willing to have Tesla and SpaceX make ventilators to help patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19. Now New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to take him up on that offer. (Sean O’Kane / The Verge)

Google approved the creation of a worker council in Europe to give employees more power over company decisions. The council would give employees the right to be consulted about issues such as organizational changes or job cuts. (Ryan Gallagher / Bloomberg)

The EARN IT Act takes aim at free speech and privacy on the internet, under the pretense of saving sexually abused children. It sounds a lot like the 2018 “sex trafficking” law FOSTA. (Elizabeth Nolan Brown / Reason)

Industry

Content moderation in India is often outsourced to third-party companies. The process puts a lot of power in the hands of young contractors who have to make split-second decisions about what people are allowed to see online. (Prasid Banerjee / Livemint)

While we’re all stuck at home, we have a moral responsibility to share are boring lives on the internet. (Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic)

A new project aims to turn social distancing into a dating game, taking a cue from “Love Is Blind.” Here, the pods are cells on a Google spreadsheet. The dates are phone calls. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

The dating site Plenty of Fish is launching a new video streaming feature to make it easier for users to meet virtually without abandoning the practice of social distancing. What could possibly go wrong? (Cody Toombs / Android Police)

Celebrities are flocking to Instagram Live to entertain fans while they isolate themselves from crowds amid the coronavirus outbreak. Some notable faces include Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Chrissy Teigen. (Kalhan Rosenblatt / NBC)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Pick a weekend project to help on the coronavirus response effort from this guide geared toward technologists.

Also: Here are three ways San Franciscans can help with the crisis.

Check out this list of relief funds for restaurants, bars, and service industry workers — some of the people and places hardest hit by the crisis.

Listen to free audiobooks for kids.

Try a free month of Scribd, a kind of Netflix for books with millions of ebooks, audiobooks, and magazine articles.

Another meditation app is going free through April.

Read the censored journalism that is being maintained in a library in Minecraft.

On Sunday, watch a one-night revival of Rosie O’Donnell’s beloved 1990s talk show.

Those good tweets

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and anonymized location data confirming that you are complying with social distancing guidelines: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.





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Tech companies could face more pressure to share location data with governments to fight coronavirus