Alphabet’s Google is examining ways to use location information to slow the spread of the coronavirus by, for example, determining the effectiveness of social distancing.
Ed Markey, a US Senator, who has long championed consumer privacy, requested caution with the government’s efforts to partner with big tech companies to track the coronavirus.
In a letter to Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, Markey cited a Washington Post report that said the government had discussions with, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet’s Google, IBM, and other tech companies to discuss potentially using smartphone location data as a research tool as the virus spreads in the United States.
Markey wrote that “We need assurances that collection and processing of these types of information, even if aggregated and anonymized, do not pose safety and privacy risks to individuals.”
He asked the government to explain how the data would be collected, anonymized and stored, who would have access to it and which companies were involved in the effort.
A Google representative said in a statement that “This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”
Facebook mentioned in a statement that there was no agreement to share the location data of individuals with the government.
A Facebook spokesman said that “In the US, we briefed the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) on the work we do with aggregate, de-identified data maps with researchers — which has been previously reported — and they were supportive of our doing more of it. We have not received requests for location data from the US government.”
Apple mentioned in a statement that the company does not track user locations. It noted that it has participated in White House COVID-19 task force meetings but is focused on telehealth and distance learning.