The Federal and State governments in the US are reportedly tracking location data of millions of cellphone users in the country to better understand the movements of people during the coronavirus pandemic. According to officials, the tracking will help them better understand how the actions of citizens are affecting the spread of the disease, but privacy advocates are ringing the alarm bells about what this might mean for the constitutional rights of American citizens.
The report, which comes from The Wall Street Journal, claims that the GPS data is already helping the federal and local governments analyze the presence and movement of people in some of the major COVID-19 hotspots in the country. The ultimate aim, according to sources quoted by the publication, is to create an online portal for federal, state and local officials, containing geo-location data of people in 500 cities across the US to help plan the epidemic response.
According to the report, the data is anonymized and is “stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner”, but it’s not immediately clear if any other information is being collected by the government. Some privacy advocates are also raising questions about whether government agencies are using the pandemic as an excuse to conduct mass surveillance on its citizens.
Either way, the officials spoken to by WSJ claim that the geo-location data shows “which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk accelerating the transmission of the virus”. It is also said to be helping them determine how much people are complying with quarantine orders, thereby enabling them to better design their response to the pandemic.