Just last year the public was scrutinizing Big Tech for its collection and use of extraordinary amounts of data about people’s activities, from real-world location tracking to virtual lingering and clicks. This scrutiny led to the landmark California Consumer Privacy Act, among other general privacy and data protection laws around the world. Will Big Tech now put that data to good use in the fight against COVID-19?
Google recently announced the launch of its publicly available COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which are based on Google Maps’ “aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are.” Google explains that the “reports used aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.” These reports are very high level, showing percentage point increases or decreases in visits to areas of interest such as “grocery & pharmacy,” “parks,” and “transit stations,” among others. In order to protect people’s privacy, Google states that it does “not share the absolute number of visits,” and “no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”
Facebook has also been sharing location data in aggregated and anonymized form with academic and nonprofit researchers around the world, and Microsoft worked with the University of Washington to create data visualizations aiming to predict the virus’ peak in each state.
Thus far, Big Tech’s release of aggregated and anonymized data strikes a sensible, if not conservative, policy that favors individual privacy protections as well as Big Tech’s ownership interests in its datasets. But can, and should, Big Tech go farther in releasing more granular and personalized information as infections continue to climb globally? Who gets to decide the balance between the need for data in combating the COVID-19 crisis versus the private interests in the data, the companies themselves or government? With ongoing concerns about putting location data in the hands of government—or having government collect that data itself, let’s hope for the time being that Big Tech will continue to take initiative in putting its data to good use.