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Global Coronavirus Crisis Could Alter Data Privacy

US Government is in talks with tech companies such as Facebook and Google about how to use smartphone location data to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Location data taken from the smartphones of Americans could help public health experts track and map the general spread of the infection, the group has theorized, though of course the prospect of any kind of location tracking is bound to leave people uncomfortable, especially when it’s done at scale and involves not only private companies with which they have a business relationship, but also the government.

Lynnette Luna, Principal Analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, offers her view:

“Big tech companies have been under fire for their monetization of customer data. But as COVID-19 rages across the globe, governments are finding they need the help of big tech to use customer data to track the virus. This global health crisis may now alter the future of data privacy in the name of public safety.

“The discussions come at an interesting time as big tech has been under fire from US regulators that have pressured companies such as Facebook and Google to become more transparent in their data collection practices and reducing their reliance on customer data for revenue—to the point where they may be regulated. Now, in light of a global pandemic, public-health experts are interested in the possibility that these same companies could compile data in anonymous, aggregated forms to map the spread of the virus.

“It’s a move that demonstrates just how desperate the US Government is to slow down a pandemic, but such a decision could result in Americans fearing the government will be tracking their daily whereabouts. Other countries have also taken similar measures, for example Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized Israel’s internal security agency to use cellphone location data to stem the coronavirus for the next 30 days.

“Geolocation will be used to trace the movement of citizens that test positive for the virus and identify people who should be quarantined. The government will direct people via text message to quarantine themselves immediately if they have come in contact with infected individuals. The move has spurred debate about the legal and ethical implications of the government tracking its citizens.”

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