Google may help UK officials track coronavirus social distancing

By | March 21, 2020
Man on train wearing mask and looking at his phone

The UK government is looking at ways of tracking people’s movements

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google is discussing sharing aggregated and anonymised location data from its apps with the UK government, to show whether people are practising social distancing to combat the coronavirus.

The technology giant told New Scientist it was at very early stages of seeing how it could share trends in location data, similar to a Google Maps feature that allows users to see when certain locations are busy. But it stressed it hadn’t yet shared any data with authorities.

The effort is part of wider talks between tech firms and governments on how countries can judge whether official guidance is affecting patterns of travel and where people are gathering, rather than trying to track individuals.

Advertisement

Unlike Google, UK mobile network operator O2 has already begun sharing aggregated location data with the UK government, Sky News reported. Executives from telecoms firm BT and the largest network operator, EE, also met officials last week to discuss how cellphone companies can help the government, The Guardian reported.

Understanding whether or not people are responding to social distancing measures is vital information for governments, because scientists have said the impact of these measures on covid-19 cases and healthcare systems won’t be seen for two to three weeks.

Google said it had no plans to share or combine data with others in industry, but was in conversations with tech firms and governments on how it could share insights into trends.

A spokesperson says: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymised location information could help in the fight against covid-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps.”

They added: “This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Travel app Citymapper has introduced a new “mobility index” feature which, based on data drawn from its users, shows people in London are still moving far more than their counterparts in other major European cities.

The app showed 39 per cent of the city was moving yesterday compared to usual trends, versus 4 per cent in Milan and 5 per cent in Madrid, both of which have seen more draconian lockdowns imposed than London, which is at the forefront of the UK epidemic.

“We have received requests from the UK government to help and will do our best. We protect the privacy of our users and are sharing aggregated analysis,” a Citymapper spokesperson told New Scientist.

It is unclear whether other UK mobile network operators will follow O2’s lead in sharing location data. Vodafone told New Scientist it has suggested the idea of sharing anonymised data to the UK government. The company has already done something similar in Italy. Mobile network Three says it is in talks with the UK government to assist.

The European Data Protection Board yesterday adopted a statement saying that if any data shared wasn’t anonymised and consent hadn’t been sought from citizens, governments would have to pass exceptional laws to do so. Such exceptional legislation is only possible, it added, if it is a “necessary, appropriate and proportionate measure within a democratic society”.

Privacy experts called for more transparency on any data sharing with governments during the coronavirus crisis. “It’s extremely opaque, which is unhelpful to all of us. For me there are too many unknowns,” says Pat Walshe of Privacy Matters. In particular, he wants to know how the data is being anonymised.

A better approach might be to encourage people to opt into sharing their data via a dedicated coronavirus app, he suggests.

UK government departments didn’t respond to questions or requests for comment.

Sign up to our free Health Check newsletter for a round-up of all the health and fitness news you need to know, every Saturday

More on these topics:

New Scientist – Health