Tech giant Google has shared user location data with governments around the world, in an effort to measure how effective lockdown and shelter-in-place policies have been. The data set, which has also been publicly published, shows location information on billions of users in 131 countries.
Charts published by the company display a comparison between a period from February 16th to March 29th to a five week period earlier this year. The company focused on traffic to retail and recreational venues, parks, train and bus stations, workplaces, and grocery stores.
With this information, governments will learn if people are abiding by shelter-in-place policies and compare the effectiveness of these policies to other claimed safety measures. The effectiveness of this information and it’s study could expose the obvious ignorance of national leaders in the data and even the CDC’s warning of the lockdown’s adverse effects.
This move by Google has understandably raised many privacy concerns given the distrust of location tracking software. Handing over these data to governments has enraged certain privacy watchdogs. However, the company published the meta-level data publicly for this exact reason—to avoid any ambiguity about what information they shared.
Which Countries Have Quarantined the Most? The Least?
Traffic rates mostly correlated with the type of policy, the severity of the outbreak in that region, and how strict the measures were.
The countries with the largest drop in visits to retail and recreation locations were Italy and Spain. Traffic to places like restaurants, stores, and movie theaters dropped a whopping 94%, which makes sense given that these two countries have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
The smallest drop was in South Korea, with only a 19% fall off in traffic to retail and recreation locations. That’s because it’s been the country that’s been the most successful in actually slowing the spread due to its use of widespread testing and detailed contact tracking.
Since the coronavirus is mild to asymptomatic in many people, it is important to test everyone, not just those sick enough to go to the hospital. Because the South Korean government was quick to cough up the funds needed to test everyone, we forget the ratio in population size and density when it comes to raw statistics and their correlations. This dataset is a very compelling argument for those that ignore the CDC and the WHO for the sake of power or control however, and must have as much scrutiny as possible.
There are no data on the changes made in China and Iran, given that Google services are blocked in those regions. This lack of crucial data is causing people to question the project and it’s effective relevance.
Issues Regarding Privacy
Google has said that there is no way an individual could be identified through this data set, neither by the public or the government. The data points come only from those users who have agreed to Google’s “Location History” feature.
Infectious disease specialists have asked for demographic information from the data to more effectively target public service announcements. Google said it will not share the raw information, but hinted that they might be able to do an in-house demographic analysis, which it could share.
Google is not the only company that has been using its otherwise inside information to study societal patters. Facebook has also shared data on their billions of users with private analytic groups. However, it has not publicly published what was shared, leading to more uncertainty about privacy abuses.