Home / Tech / Google is fighting COVID-19 by monitoring location data in 131 countries. It's a reminder of how much info Google has about us and how easily the pandemic could blow up privacy. (GOOG, GOOGL)

Google is fighting COVID-19 by monitoring location data in 131 countries. It's a reminder of how much info Google has about us and how easily the pandemic could blow up privacy. (GOOG, GOOGL)

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  • Google is using location data to tell health organizations which global communities are staying at home, and which aren’t.
  • It uses anonymized data taken from smartphones using Google’s apps and services.
  • The new tool shows how important data can be in efforts to stop the spread of the virus. 
  • But it also raises some privacy concerns, especially given how how much other data Google has about users of its various services, from Maps to email. 
  • Verily, the healthtech company owned by Google parent Alphabet, that is providing a site to help people get screened for the coronavirus, is requiring people to sign in with a Google account.
  • Google says the data Verily collects is not linked to other Google products. But Google has a history of changing policies about how it handles user data.
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Google wants to help halt the spread of the coronavirus by harnessing the power of data.

The internet company recently announced that it is using location data gleaned from hundreds of millions of smartphones around the world to give health organizations a window into how communities in 131 different countries are moving.

The COVID-10 Community Mobility Reports website, launched Friday, shows how many people are visiting certain locations like grocery stores and parks. That’s important as health organizations try to understand where social distancing is working, and where it isn’t. 

But the project has raised some concerns. Just how much of our personal data is being collected and shared to create this capability, and is there any reason to worry about our privacy?

First, it’s important to clarify what Google says it’s doing.  The company says the data is taken from all of its location-enabled apps, on both Android and iPhone devices, where the user has opted into sharing their location history – something they must opt into in the settings. The information that Google collects is anonymized and combined, or aggregated, with everyone else’s data so as to not include any personally identifiable information.

“No personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point,” Google said. 

Google mobility report

The data, which is published in PDF format by country or region, breaks down mobility trends into categories: retail and recreation spots, grocery and pharmacy stores, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. Google presents this data in percentages rather than offering specific numbers of people in these locations.

Google is also using something called differential privacy, which adds “noise” to the collected data in order to obscure anything that could identify a user.

The cross-referencing risk

Even if you accept Google’s promise that it will not share users’ personal information with anyone, and that the data could not be untangled by a third party, that still leaves the issue of how Google itself might use all this information.

Yes, this is technically data Google already has, explained Hermanshu Nigam, founder and CEO of Cyber Security Affairs. “They’re just re-crunching the numbers,” he told Business Insider.  But there is still a concern that Google might be able to cross-reference this data with other information it collects across its services.

After all, the company doesn’t have the best track record of keeping its various buckets separate: In 2016 it changed a policy that previously kept users’ browsing history separate from personal information taken from other Google services.

Since the removal of that clause, Google has been able to build detailed ad profiles of its users by mushing all of this data together.

Google also has a history of complying with geofence warrants by giving the police location data that can identify devices in a certain area at a certain time. Such data placed one person at the middle of an investigation this year, who was later cleared.

Coronavirus test

Plus, right now, Verily, the life sciences division of Alphabet and Google sibling, is making users sign in with a Google account to use its COVID-19 screening service. This has prompted an inquiry from US senators, but at the time of writing the requirement is still in place.

That means Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has information on who has screened for COVID-19, and Verily says it may also get access to your test results, should you take one. Verily told Business Insider that all of the data it collects is not linked to Google’s other products, but it continues to face probing from lawmakers as to how it will exactly handle it all.

Google has an amazing amount of information about you

Consider all the different sources of data that Google could theoretically analyze and connect together as it relates to the coronavirus:

Maps: Google Maps stores information on every place you’ve been. While it isn’t precise enough to tell if you’ve been within six feet of another person, this data could still be used to determine if you traveled through a high-risk location, or if you’re out and about during a shelter-in-place.

Search: Your stored search history tells Google a lot about you, and is used to inform the way it targets ads across the web. Searches for symptoms, cures and similar will all feed into the big Google brain.

Android: Users of Android phones should always be a little more cautious. A research paper published in 2018 found that Android phones send data samples from Google’s apps to its servers far more frequently than Google apps on iPhones do. On Android, location settings can be controlled at the device level, while iPhone users will need to change their Google account settings either by going through one of Google’s apps or using the web.

Gmail: Perhaps your COVID-19 test results were sent to your Gmail account. Your plane tickets from a trip to China or Italy are also in your email. Google doesn’t let employees read private emails of course, but its ad technology scans the contents of those messages.  

Verily: Anyone who uses Verily’s COVID-19 screening service must do so with a Google account. Verily says the information isn’t shared with other Google services, but this still raises plenty of questions. Verily also says on its website: “Your test results may be provided to Verily and further shared with public health authorities, including the California Department of Public Health, to inform public health actions to help protect our community.”

Legally, if Google wants to use the community COVID-19 data in a way that differs from the privacy policies people previously agreed to, it would need to ask for users’ permission. So if Google decided it wanted to change the rules, data collected before any changes to the program couldn’t be used, Hermanshu Nigam, said.

Still, there’s an amazing amount of information that Google has at its disposal. And as we’ve seen in other countries like Israel, which has allowed the Shin Bet security service to track citizens’ movements using technical data from cell phones, existing rules can be legally overridden in extraordinary situations like a pandemic. 

china coronavirus green code app

And in countries with more authoritarian governments like China, popular commercial apps like Alipay and WeChat are now being used to assign citizens with special color codes based on their health status. Each individual’s color determines their freedom of personal movement. While that level of control is unlikely to occur in the US, it shows how easily today’s data-powered consumer technology can be turned into restrictive tools in the name of fighting the virus.

What happens when this is all over?

Another potential concern is what happens once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Does Google continue to offer its anonymized “community mobility reports” to governments and health organizations when there’s less of a need for it? 

That’s the kind of mission creep that privacy experts have long warned about in the policy realm, with surveillance to deter terrorism or drug trafficking gradually becoming the norm and outliving the initial objective.

Of course, it’s also possible that after the pandemic, society will have much different opinions about privacy, perhaps seeing a need to trade away certain expectations of privacy in order to more effectively fight pandemics. 

Lydia Clougherty Jones, a senior director at analyst at Gartner focusing on privacy, raises an interesting question: whether community-based data collection like Google’s during the COVID-19 pandemic could expand our notions of what should be protected, and what shouldn’t, in the future.

“I think the aggregated data is informing policy because it’s helping states move to a more robust shelter in place order, if that’s what is required for the community. But it’s based on community data, not individual data, so when the crisis is over it remains to be seen if the need for such aggregated data will still exist.

“Right now privacy is about individual data, and this location tracking is about community data. If we’re being compared to other locations, does that impact our identity? Will we start to look at privacy at an aggregate level, say NY vs Florida? There are tensions between locations being driven by the privacy debate.”

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