COVID-19 Will Someday Fade Away. The Wireless Location Data Practices Being Embraced To Track It Probably Won't.

from the nobody's-watching-the-watchers dept

Location data has long proven to be hugely profitable to wireless carriers, given it's used by everyone from city planners to marketing departments. Now it's proving useful to help spread the track of COVID-19, allowing researchers to see not only who an infected person has been in contact with and where they've been, but also helping them predict where hot spots might appear next. Such technology was used during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to help both track and predict the movement of the disease.

Now the government says it's working in partnership with the advertising industry to use such location data here in the States. The Wall Street Journal (paywall, alternative read at The Verge) indicates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments have already received cell phone data about people in areas of “geographic interest." In this case, to track movements and determine how well people are adhering to "stay at home" restrictions:

"The goal is to create a government portal with geolocation information from some 500 cities across the country, to help ascertain how well people are complying with stay-at-home orders, according to the WSJ. One example of how the anonymized data was reportedly used: Researchers discovered large numbers of people were gathering in a New York City park, and notified local authorities."

Of course just because we're in a pandemic doesn't mean that privacy concerns magically evaporate, or that we shouldn't make an effort to respect citizen privacy. We've noted repeatedly that anonymized location data isn't really anonymous, and individual identities can usually be ferreted out with little to no effort. The more widely this data circulates, the more likely the chance is it's abused by everybody from industry and government to hackers and con artists.

The other obvious problem is that the fear of a pandemic creates wonderful cover to abuse the collection of this data for other, less noble purposes. The wireless industry was just busted selling access to this data to any nitwit with a nickel, which is likely why government is collaborating with the ad sector and not carriers directly (at least not yet, and as far as we know). The Washington Post also indicates that Google and Facebook, fresh off one of the biggest privacy scandals in U.S. history, are also collaborating with the government in regards to location data.

As anybody tracking this space knows, it's extremely difficult to claw surveillance power back from the government once it's been obtained, and with the U.S. still having no real privacy law for the internet era, it's a virtual certainty that the collection of this data will be abused. There could certainly be ways to mitigate that harm -- such as sunset provisions on collection and strict rules governing how this data can be used -- but we'd already made it abundantly clear as a nation we weren't particularly interested in such options, and with a climate of fear likely overshadowing everything, it's not likely we're about to start now.

While it takes a while, the threat posed by COVID-19 will eventually retreat. The surveillance practices we normalize during this period will very likely be here to stay.

Filed Under: covid-19, location data, privacy, surveillance


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 6:52am

    The virus that they really want to track the spread of is political wrong think, as per China.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeremy Lyman (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 7:14am

    "just because we're in a pandemic doesn't mean that privacy concerns magically evaporate, or that we shouldn't make an effort to respect citizen privacy."
    {{Citation needed}}

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 7:19am

    Practice or data?

    It's certainly a trade-off. While tracking people (maybe even especially their recent histories) is good for helping to control the pandemic, there are privacy issues with this kind of tracking. When the crisis is over, or mostly over, and people start complaining again about privacy, there will be a large number who will point back at the crisis and say 'but look at how much good it did'. Well, it might have, but that was for a specific purpose, what is the purpose now? Then they will cry, we need to have the ability to do this in the future for the next pandemic. And we will say, maybe so, but in the mean time...my privacy is mine, not yours.

    Then there is the data. Once the data is used for crisis amelioration, what other purposes will it be used for? At the very least, and for the purpose of privacy, limits should be put upon the use of location data, as the 4th Amendment and cell site impersonator limitations are saying. The problem will be in actually controlling those uses, as we have experience with the government not being entirely forthcoming about how they go about abusing their power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 8:11am

    "Now the government says it's working in partnership with the advertising industry to use such location data "

    Oh good! That means the health insurance rate payers will not need to be hit with exorbitant price increases ... haha, no it doesn't. Funny how socialism is bad only when some other guy is the recipient.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 8:11am

    There has never been any government that was willing to let a good emergency go to waste by not expanding their power and control over their subjects.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 9:00am

    boomerang

    There's talk of Coronavirus being a seasonal infection/demic, so there's that...

    Anyone else concerned that the Amazon employee protesters might 'protest' themselves right out of a job - only to be replaced by automation and/or Chinese workers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    fairuse (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 9:23am

    Virus explained in readable english - there will be a quiz

    Twitter that outstanding public chalkboard loved by all sometimes has facts.

    This is description on how Coronavirus-2019 got here and what it does and a what if part. Thread is several posts then long comment part. Easy read.
    Who is he? https://twitter.com/PeterKolchinsky

    https://twitter.com/PeterKolchinsky/status/1246975275021348865?s=20

    Not a policy wonk

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    K`Tetch (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 9:38am

    I'm doing my best to screw with the numbers/data

    I do my daily walk, I take most of my family's phones with me so I can do their PoGo/WizU/Ingress. So the data shows a group of us moving, in reality it's me, sloppily slopping around the local streets and checking the POBox

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stine, 6 Apr 2020 @ 10:09am

    on the other hand

    If we can get all of the evil bastards to expose their tracking efforts we can summarily execute them once this strain of the flu has passed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 10:38am

    Will you get in trouble if your cell phone traces out vulgar commentary?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 10:40am

    Taiwan is insisting that (assuming you have a cell phone) you
    a) have it with you
    b) have it turned on
    and c) answer regular queries to ensure (a) and (b).

    Your tracking device is now mandatory.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Cow, 7 Apr 2020 @ 12:15am

      Re:

      To be fair, they have implemented it on people in quarantine. Nonetheless...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2020 @ 4:21am

      Re:

      In Louisville, they are already making people under quarantine wear ankle bracelets.

      Of course those can be jammed with jammer that can jam celluar data but voice.

      If the bracelet is using TMoble or Metro, you can jam data without jamming voice becuase voice and data as on totally different frequency bands.

      Jamming data is not iilegal as long as you do not jam voice, at least under US federal law.

      When I had a neighbor here in my apartment building who jammed data during dinnertime, he had Metro, so he could jam data without affecting voice calls on nearby Metro customers. Voice calls went through but data was shut down when the jammer was on to keep his kids off cell phone Internet

      The management company here, HomeRiver, told me there was nothing they could do unless he jammed voice, which he did not. They told me that he was breaking no laws jamming data as long as he did not jam voice, so they declined to take any action.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2020 @ 4:12pm

    One thing ipedict is the CFAA being updated to criminalize jamming data

    Currently it is not a crime to jam data, as long as you do not jam wireless internet

    I am thinking that if there is more surveillance using location data there could well be an item about that added to the CFAA someday
    .

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 7 Apr 2020 @ 9:08am

      Re:

      Currently it is not a crime to jam data, as long as you do not jam wireless internet

      Citation needed.

      "The use of "cell jammers" or similar devices designed to intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications (signal blockers, GPS jammers, or text stoppers, etc.) is a violation of federal law."

      https://www.fcc.gov/general/jammer-enforcement

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2020 @ 2:19pm

        Re: Re:

        Wireless internet is not covered. It only applies to jamming phone calls

        Like I said, I would not be surprised if Congress adds an item about that to the CFAA someday

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2020 @ 6:45am

    but what about

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.