No matter how we feel about tackling the current coronavirus situation, the consensus from federal and public health officials seems to be the same: we need more data to do it. So naturally, it makes sense to look to the data-hoovering tech companies to lend their expertise on the issue. At least, that’s what’s reportedly going through the mind of officials in the U.S. government.
Multiple anonymous sources told The Washington Post earlier today, government researchers are in “active talks” with executives from Facebook, Google and a wide array of other tech companies to discuss how the public and private sector could team up to combat the coronavirus’s spread—and using the location data collected by mobile phones to do it.
One of the sources—an official with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy—explained to the Post that their interest lay in the idea that location data could be compiled in an anonymous, aggregated way to, say, map where the disease is spreading throughout the country, or ensuring that each of us is keeping up with our obligatory social distancing.
“Multiple sources stressed that—if they proceed—they are not building a government database,” The Post reported. “Rather, U.S. officials have asked whether companies’ vast stores of geolocation data might help epidemiologists spot trends, including vulnerable populations, or identify areas at risk, such as hospitals under strain.”
It’s worth noting that elsewhere, these companies are already on the ground putting similar ideas into motion. Last week, the BBC reported that Facebook is working with researchers at Harvard University in Boston, and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan to “map out people’s movements” through population density maps, using—you guessed it—anonymous, aggregated data. Meanwhile, similar initiatives are already on the ground in Israel and are being actively discussed by government officials in Austria.
Google and Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story and we’ll update this post when we receive a reply.
Even without a massive database, the idea of federal officials getting their hands on location data should be enough to make some folks itchy. Technically, the data compiled by the major data brokers of the world is already aggregated and anonymised, as most of them will readily tell you; but we’ve seen time and time again that anonymous or otherwise, it’s ridiculously easy to nail down the human behind a given data point—even if major tech companies continue to pretend that it isn’t.