Privacy concerns have one tech giant suggesting alternatives to sharing potentially identifiable location tracking data

Expect an interesting debate on the use of location tracking as a way to manage this and future pandemics. It is a debate that has implications for clinical laboratories. After all, if location tracking identifies individuals who may have been exposed to an infectious disease, will health authorities want those individuals to be immediately tested?

Location tracking has been around for quite some time. Anyone who owns a smartphone knows that digital map and navigation software applications (apps) locate our position and track our movements. That’s how they work. Maps are good. But does collecting and sharing location tracking data violate personal privacy laws that some Silicon Valley tech giants want to use to help public health officials track disease? Maybe.

Google, Facebook, and other tech companies have been talking to the US federal government about ways to use location tracking data from smartphones and online software applications to combat the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, reported the Washington Post.

The tracking data could be used by public health officials to spot disease outbreaks in populations and predict how it might spread. Analyzing the data generated by smartphone tracking and reporting apps also could be used to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, and who should get clinical laboratory tests to determine if they need medical intervention.

However, Google is apparently resistant to using its collected location data to track and identify individuals. Instead, Google Health’s Head of Communications and Public Affairs, Johnny Luu, said Google was “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,” said Luu in a statement. He stressed, though, that any such arrangement “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts,” reported the Washington Post.

Can Privacy be Maintained While Tracking Disease?

Google’s sister company, Verily, launched a screening website in March for people who believe they may have COVID-19. The pilot program is only available to some California residents. Users of the service complete a series of online questions to determine their coronavirus risk and whether or not they should seek medical attention.

To use the service, individuals must log into the site using a Google account and sign a consent authorization form which states data collected may be shared with public health officials, a move that has received criticism.

Jacob Snow, JD, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, expressed concerns about Verily’s program. “COVID-19 testing is a vital public necessity right now—a core imperative for slowing this disease,” he told CNET. “Access to critical testing should not depend on creating an account and sharing information with what is, essentially, an advertising company.

“This is how privacy invasions have the potential to disproportionately harm the vulnerable,” he continued. “Google should release this tool without those limits, so testing can proceed as quickly as possible.”

Facebook, on the other hand, has had a Disease Prevention Map program in place for about a year. This program provides location information provided by individuals who choose to participate to health organizations around the globe.

“Disease prevention maps have helped organizations respond to health emergencies for nearly a year and we’ve heard from a number of governments that they’re supportive of this work,” said Laura McGorman, Policy Lead, Data for Good at Facebook, in a statement, reported CNET. “In the coronavirus context, researchers and nonprofits can use the maps, which are built with aggregated and anonymized data that people opt in to share, to understand and help combat the spread of the virus.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University worked with Facebook to create the COVID-19 Symptom Map (above), which is based on aggregated data drawn from self-reported symptoms Facebook. The map, which updates regularly, is viewable by day, counties, hospital referral regions, and COVID-19 symptoms. “This is work that social networks are well-situated to do. By distributing surveys to large numbers of people whose identities we know, we can quickly generate enough signal to correct for biases and ensure sampling is done properly,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, in a Washington Post op-ed about the Carnegie Mellon’s results, reported MobiHealthNews. (Graphic copyright: Facebook/Business Insider.)

Privacy Organizations Voice Concerns

Privacy and civil liberties issues regarding the collection and use of smartphone data to curtail the pandemic are of concern to some organizations. There may be legal and ethical implications present when using personal data in this manner.

Al Gidari, JD, Director of Privacy, Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School, says the balance between privacy and pandemic policy is a delicate one, reported the Washington Post. “The problem here is that this is not a law school exam. Technology can save lives, but if the implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk,” he said.

In response to public privacy concerns following the Washington Post’s report, representatives for Google and Facebook said the companies have not shared any aggregated and anonymized data with the government regarding contact tracing and COVID-19, reported the Washington Post.

Google reiterated that any related projects are still in their early stages and that they are not sure what their participation level might look like. And, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that Facebook “isn’t prepared to turn over people’s location data en masse to any governments for tracking the coronavirus outbreak,” reported CNET.

“I don’t think it would make sense to share people’s data in a way where they didn’t have the opportunity to opt in to do that,” Zuckerberg said.

The potential use of location tracking data, when combined with other information, is one example of how technology can leverage non-medical information and match it with clinical data to watch population trends.

As of April 23, there were 2,637,911 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 184,235 deaths from the coronavirus worldwide, according to www.worldometers.info/coronavirus. And, cases of coronavirus disease have been reported in 213 countries according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As testing increases, more cases will be reported and it is unknown how long the virus will continue to spread, so advocates of location tracking and similar technologies that can be brought to bear to save lives during a disease outbreak may be worth some loss of privacy.

Pathologists and medical laboratory professionals may want to monitor the public debate over the appropriate use of location tracking. After all, at some future point, clinical laboratory test results of individuals might be added to location tracking programs to help public health authorities better monitor where disease outbreaks are occurring and how they are spreading.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

U.S. Government, Tech Industry Discussing Ways to Use Smartphone Location Data to Combat Coronavirus

Google, Facebook Could Help US Track Spread of Coronavirus with Phone Location Data

Google, Facebook, and Other Tech Companies Are Reportedly in Talks with the US Government to Use Your Location Data to Stop the Coronavirus—And to See If Social Distancing Is Really Working

Google Wary of Sharing User Location Data in Pandemic Fight

Google, Other Companies Get Your Data If You Use Verily’s Coronavirus Site

Zuckerberg: Facebook Isn’t Giving Governments Data to Track Coronavirus Spread

Coronavirus: Google Says It Hasn’t Shared Location Data in Virus Response

CDC: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

WHO: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak Situation

Facebook Launches COVID-19 Symptom Maps

Facebook Just Released an Interactive COVID-19 Map That Shows How Many People Are Reporting Symptoms in Your Area

Facebook and Carnegie Mellon University COVID-19 Symptom Map

Facebook Rolls Out Three New COVID-19 Related Health Tracking Maps

Self-Reported Symptoms from Surveys Posted on Facebook, Google Outlets Correlate with Confirmed Tests, According to Carnegie Mellon