Google Will Track Cell Phone User Locations to Monitor “Social Distancing”
- Google has launched a new electronic surveillance initiative that collects location data from users of Google products and services, including cell phones, to track “social distancing” activity and publicly post “Community Mobility Reports” on a new Google website.
- Google surveillance reports will track and publicly report on the movements and activity of electronic product users in six locations that include (1) retail and recreation; (2) grocery and pharmacies; (3) parks; (4) transit stations; (5) workplaces and (6) residential areas.
- Google’s surveillance initiative has raised privacy concerns about collection of data on the movements of people within population areas.
Google has announced that it will use its storage of electronic data to track and publicly report on the movements of individuals at the population level during the COVID-19 pandemic. The electronic surveillance initiative utilizes information that Google has collected on users of Google cell phones and products, such as Google Maps, to create reports on the degree to which populations in different areas are conforming to government “social distancing” measures.1
Google maintains it has consulted with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the new surveillance tool.1 The “mobility reports” will be posted publicly on Google’s new website to show whether particular localities, states or countries are seeing more or less people gathering in different types of public spaces.1
According to Google’s website: “As global communities respond to COVID-19, we’ve heard from public health officials that the same type of aggregated, anonymized insights we use in products such as Google Maps could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19. These Community Mobility Reports aim to provide insights into what has changed in response to policies aimed at combating COVID-19. The reports chart movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.”2
Information Included in Google’s Electronic Surveillance Reports
According to Google, the company plans to publish a series of “Community Mobility Reports” to show the types of places people are visiting across 131 countries and regions.3 The reports contain data from two to three days earlier and will show trends in how populations in different areas are behaving and responding to government “social distancing” regulations, including how many people are still going to work or entering shops and grocery stores, pharmacies, parks and other public spaces.
The electronic surveillance reports will also show traffic comparisons in terms of how busy these places were before the pandemic.3 In the United States, the data will be drilled down to the county level.1
Google said the surveillance data will be collected in aggregate form rather than at an individual level and it will not report absolute numbers of people showing up at parks or grocery stores.4According to the company, the idea is to outline activity in percentages, which highlight potential surges in attendance.4 For example, in its first report, San Francisco County has seen a 75 percent drop in retail and recreation, a 55 percent decline in parks’ population and a 21 percent increase in residential population between February 16, 2020 and March 29, 2020.5
Data Will be Given to Government Officials
Google has said that this type of electronic surveillance data could be useful in alerting local health departments to identify the next potential COVID-19 hotspot combined with other forms of surveillance data routinely collected by government agencies on a local, state and federal level.5 The data will assist public health officials with targeting specific regions with messaging about the need to abide by social distancing rules and not enter parks or other public spaces where residents routinely gather.
Public health officials want to use the information to monitor populations in different countries as people start to return to school and work after COVID-19 quarantines are lifted to measure disease incidence in areas that are congested and heavily active.4
Google Denies Privacy Violations
Google’s new enterprise has prompted renewed privacy concerns about Google collecting information on the movements of users of Google cell phones and other electronic products.4Google maintains that the Community Mobility Reports are powered by the same “anonymization” technology that they use in their products every day.6
Google’s blog post states that for these mobility surveillance reports, the company will use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to the datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person.6 The blog post adds that Google product users have control over whether or not they want to be tracked by turning the Location History setting “on” or “off”: “The insights are created with aggregated, “anonymized” sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default. Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline.”6
1 Copeland R.Google Offers User Location Data to Health Officials Tackling Coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal Apr. 3, 2020.
2 Google. COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.
3 Woodyatt A. Google to release your location data to help fight coronavirus pandemic. CNN Apr. 3, 2020.
4 Elias J. New Google site shows where people in a community are taking social distancing seriously — and where they’re not. CNBC Apr. 3, 2020.
5 Google. COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports. California March 29, 2020. Mar. 29, 2020.
6 Fitzpatrick J, DeSalvo K. Helping public health officials combat COVID-19. Google Apr. 3, 2020.