Trump administration wants to use Americans' location data to track the coronavirus

CNN's Evan McMorris-Santoro reports on virtual learning now that it's the new norm for students across the US amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Mar 19, 2020 8:35 AM


The Trump administration is in discussions with the tech industry, including Facebook and Google, about how to use Americans' cellphone location data to track the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Facebook and Google confirmed to CNN that they are exploring ways to use aggregated, anonymized data to help in the coronavirus effort, after the Washington Post first reported the matter on Tuesday. In response to CNN's questions, Apple said it has not been a part of the location data discussions.

The location data conversations are part of a series of interactions between the White House and the tech industry about how Silicon Valley can contribute to the coronavirus response, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. Several informal working groups have been created under that initiative, including one focusing on expanding virtual education, another dealing with telehealth, a third examining how to limit the spread of coronavirus misinformation, and a fourth to explore the use of geolocation data for disease tracking.

The State Department is also engaged on the issue after receiving requests from multiple foreign governments about tapping into tech companies' knowledge of the movements of billions of people worldwide, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

So far, the government has merely asked for generalized location insights that could, for example, show changes in highway traffic patterns or grocery store visits, said another of the people familiar. But, two of the people said, it raises the prospect of the government asking for further, more granular information that could pose privacy risks.

"I wish people would slow it down a bit, because I don't think people have fully thought it through," said one of the people, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve professional relationships. Even inadvertent disclosure of the identity of an infected individual as a result of a detailed location tracking program could lead to social shaming, violence or worse, the person said.

Tech companies aren't alone in maintaining vast troves of customer location data. Telecom carriers that handle the smartphone communications of millions of Americans also have access to detailed location information. But it is unclear whether the Trump administration has asked them to provide that data, and if so, how granular it might be.

Spokespeople for Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked whether it has participated in the US government discussions about using location data, AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris responded with a one-word answer: "No." (CNN's parent company, WarnerMedia, is owned by AT&T.)

The US is not the only country to consider technology-based tracking. Israel this week passed a proposal to track coronavirus patients on a far more detailed, individual level, using location tools that had previously been used only for counterterrorism purposes. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has used electronic wristbands to keep tabs on at-risk individuals.

While the pandemic may provide more reasons to put privacy on the back burner, there need to be strong rules and safeguards regulating how data can be used in the current crisis, said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook and Obama administration official who is now a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"There is a tremendous risk that governments could use technological capacities to monitor the spread of the virus to actually surveil their citizens," he said. "Should governments decide to track their citizens, they should establish clear guidelines as to what powers they do have, how they will conduct any monitoring, and what steps they are taking to protect privacy."

In a statement, Google said anonymized location data could help health officials "determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps." The company added: "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."

Google said it has not yet shared any such data, and that if it did, it would not be combined with that of other companies. Google also said that because users must opt in to location history tracking, the data will not be granular enough to support complex "contact tracing" to trace an infection back to its source.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drew a distinction between sharing aggregate data in an anonymized fashion and raw, granular data about specific individuals.

"I don't think that there are direct asks for access to people's data," he said. "It's kind of hypothetical, because nobody is asking for this." He added that some of the media reporting surrounding the issue has been "largely overstated."

In a separate statement, Facebook told CNN that the company has published disaster maps populated with aggregated user location data since 2017. For example, Facebook has published maps tracking the movements of its users in response to California wildfires. As with Google, the location data Facebook collects comes from users who have opted into location sharing, Facebook said. The company has already provided mapping and location information to researchers in Taiwan and at Harvard University, and it is considering expanding the program.

"In the coronavirus context, researchers and nonprofits can use the maps ... to understand and help combat the spread of the virus," Facebook's statement said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 604184

Reported Deaths: 7620
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1248631774
Ramsey52480895
Dakota46804470
Anoka42746458
Washington27416291
Stearns22552224
St. Louis18137312
Scott17548135
Wright16370149
Olmsted13391102
Sherburne1201295
Carver1066448
Clay825892
Rice8196110
Blue Earth762543
Crow Wing681594
Kandiyohi667885
Chisago619752
Otter Tail585884
Benton582998
Goodhue483874
Douglas475381
Mower470733
Winona461251
Itasca459263
Isanti439964
McLeod430361
Morrison424662
Nobles407950
Beltrami407561
Steele397616
Polk389072
Becker386655
Lyon363853
Carlton352756
Freeborn346932
Pine335023
Nicollet331045
Mille Lacs311654
Brown307840
Le Sueur297226
Cass286032
Todd285632
Meeker263142
Waseca238023
Martin235332
Roseau211021
Wabasha20783
Hubbard196441
Dodge18783
Renville182446
Redwood176338
Houston174616
Cottonwood167124
Wadena162823
Fillmore157410
Faribault154419
Chippewa153938
Pennington153820
Kanabec146828
Sibley146810
Aitkin138837
Watonwan13579
Rock128719
Jackson122612
Pipestone116726
Yellow Medicine114920
Pope11296
Murray107010
Swift106918
Koochiching95217
Stevens92411
Clearwater89016
Marshall88817
Wilkin83213
Lake83120
Lac qui Parle75622
Big Stone6044
Grant5938
Lincoln5843
Mahnomen5669
Norman5479
Kittson49022
Unassigned48293
Red Lake4017
Traverse3775
Lake of the Woods3453
Cook1720

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 370914

Reported Deaths: 6048
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk58232640
Linn21204339
Scott20306247
Black Hawk16119312
Woodbury15238230
Johnson1461585
Dubuque13506211
Dallas1128999
Pottawattamie11223174
Story1071448
Warren583991
Clinton561493
Cerro Gordo553593
Sioux517074
Webster515494
Muscatine4880106
Marshall486676
Des Moines467271
Wapello4337122
Buena Vista426940
Jasper421172
Plymouth402981
Lee382356
Marion366076
Jones300957
Henry294637
Bremer288261
Carroll286852
Crawford268540
Boone268434
Benton259655
Washington256751
Dickinson249344
Mahaska232351
Jackson225242
Clay216627
Kossuth216166
Tama211871
Delaware210943
Winneshiek198535
Page194522
Buchanan193733
Cedar192223
Hardin187444
Fayette186543
Wright185940
Hamilton181851
Harrison179973
Clayton171057
Butler166235
Madison164619
Mills163724
Floyd163342
Cherokee159338
Lyon158841
Poweshiek157036
Allamakee152652
Hancock150234
Iowa149824
Winnebago144531
Cass139255
Calhoun138913
Grundy137333
Emmet135841
Jefferson133435
Shelby131537
Sac130920
Union129935
Louisa129749
Appanoose129049
Mitchell126643
Chickasaw124717
Franklin123323
Guthrie123232
Humboldt119626
Palo Alto113523
Howard104922
Montgomery103638
Clarke100924
Keokuk96532
Monroe96330
Unassigned9560
Ida91535
Adair87332
Pocahontas85822
Davis85225
Monona82931
Osceola78916
Greene78011
Lucas77923
Worth7598
Taylor66812
Fremont6269
Decatur6169
Van Buren56418
Ringgold56324
Wayne54423
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Adams3444
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