Google, Facebook and other tech companies are in discussions with the federal government over how they can help fight the novel coronavirus with user location data collected from people’s phones, according to a report Tuesday by The Washington Post.
The data, which would be anonymous and aggregated, could track whether people are keeping enough distance from each other to curb the spread of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.
The strategy could be helpful in studying transmission trends for the virus. But it also comes at a time when big tech companies are already under intense scrutiny over their privacy policies and the trove of personal information they have on consumers.
Google and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Facebook spokesman pointed to work the company has done with researchers at Harvard and the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan in “sharing aggregated and anonymized mobility data and high resolution population density maps to help inform their forecasting models for the spread of the virus.” He didn’t answer a question about the company being in talks with US government officials about the maps.
A similar strategy is reportedly being implemented in other parts of the world effected by the virus. Israeli government officialsto use cell phone data to track the locations of people infected with the coronavirus and those they might have had contact with, multiple news agencies reported Tuesday.
Google has already been working with the government to respond to the coronavirus. On Sunday evening, Google’s sister company Verily, which is focused on health care and life sciences, launched a website to give people information about coronavirus screening, though it is limited for now to two testing sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. The rollout followed a set of confusing announcements last week by Google and President Donald Trump.
The discussions come as government, business and community leaders have made an increased effort to stop the spread of the virus. Schools have closed down, sports events have been canceled, and most public gatherings have been banned. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where many of the big tech companies are headquartered, a shelter-in-place policy was announced Monday, and will be in effect at least until April 7.