The US media reported that Google and Facebook are in talks with Washington over potentially using individuals’ personal data to track and combat the coronavirus outbreak.

The project would include collecting location information from Americans’ smartphones and using it anonymously to map the spread of the disease and predict urgent medical needs, for example.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Google spokesman Johnny Luu confirmed they were “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19.”

The use of personal data in the US is highly sensitive after several scandals — such as in 2011 when the National Security Agency was found to be collecting phone records without permission.

But pressure has mounted for Silicon Valley to use their expertise to fight the deadly virus after roughly 50 scientists signed an open letter last week calling on them to act.

The doctors, epidemiologists and researchers wrote that “It is clear that large-scale efforts by technology platforms could tip the scales on the right side to contain the pandemic and save thousands if not millions of lives.”

Among other recommendations, they suggested that social networks broadcast educational videos, Uber distributes disinfectant products to its drivers, and Amazon limits the number of and hydro-alcoholic gels that can be sold per person.

As for Google and Apple, “they should integrate into the operating system of the phones a tracking tool, which users could choose to activate, anonymously, to find out if they have been in the presence of identified cases.”

People could quarantine themselves if necessary and monitor the appearance of any symptoms.

They added that “In the longer term, such a system would better contain other future epidemics. Tracking contacts between people has worked well in China and South Korea, and such a tool would make this method usable everywhere, on a large scale.”


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