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US government officials using mobile ad location data to study the spread of the coronavirus

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US government using cell phone location data from the mobile advertising industry, not data from the operators themselves, to track the movements of Americans during the coronavirus outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with state and local governments, have received cell phone data on people in areas of “geographic interest,” reports the WSJ.

The goal is to create a government portal with geolocation information from some 500 cities across the country, to help determine how well people are complying with orders to stay home, according to the WSJ. An example of how anonymous data was used: Investigators discovered that large numbers of people were gathering in a New York City park and notified local authorities.

The use of even anonymized data raises countless privacy concerns, and privacy advocates demand limits on how much data can be used and prevent its use for other purposes, the WSJ reported.

Other countries have used cell phone data to track the movements of citizens during the pandemic; According to reports, mobile phone operators in the European Union have shared some data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria. although details on specific patients were not included. Israel authorized the use of cell phone location data to track the virus, with data to be used in “focused, time-limited and limited activity,” according to The New York Times.

China’s monitoring system sends information to law enforcement officials, while Taiwan’s “electronic fence” alerts authorities when a quarantined person strays too far from their home. And South Korea used cell phone location data to create a public map of coronavirus patients, to track where people may have been exposed.

Cell phone operators in the United States told the WSJ that the government had not asked them to provide location data. But the Washington Post reported on March 17 that the federal government was in “active conversations” with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies to figure out how to use the phone’s location data.

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