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Smartphone location data gathered by tech giants could be used to combat COVID-19

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At a time when social media users are concerned about how tech companies handle their user data, the United States government is reportedly discussing with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies to see how they could share location data gotten from users’ smartphones in a bid to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

A report by The Washington Post reveals that the government is interested in gathering anonymous aggregated location data from various tech companies. The data could then be used to map the spread of the coronavirus.

It could also be put to use in tracking the effectiveness of social distancing in curbing the spread of the disease. The report credited to have been revealed by an unnamed official of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, claims the project and negotiations with the companies are still in infancy.

Facebook executives are also credited to have hinted that the US government was interested in having an accurate idea of people’s movement patterns. This can be gotten through Facebook users data. The company is said to have in the past offered this form of anonymous data to health researchers in the form of disease prevention maps. Officials could also use the information to predict hotspots and to plan the allocation of health resources.

While this could help scientists understand the spread of COVID-19, some people might find it discomforting especially those that are very much concerned about their privacy and fear the government could be snooping on them.

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However, the report specifically stated that the data would be anonymized and aggregated and that the government isn’t using such data to build a database. Facebook says the location data it provides for other disease tracking projects have a limited granularity of a third of a mile. In addition, the data doesn’t include an individual’s movement.

The report also claims that several tech companies including Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Google had a collective interaction with White House officials last week. The government had asked the companies for help as it responds to the growing outbreak.

Google is said to be working on an information website for COVID-19 that would be launched soon. Verily is already in its early stages but limited to the Bay Area of California as it provides education, prevention tips and local information.

In addition, White House officials in collaboration with tech experts and health officials have also launched a portal of more than 29,000 coronavirus research papers that allows AI tools and bots to scan and analyze data to discover new insights on COVID-19.

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