In the fight against COVID–19 (coronavirus), Google has announced it is partnering with dozens of governments around the world, sharing its users’ location history, and, in the process, giving us an insight into how much the Silicon Valley company knows about us.
“As global communities respond to COVID-19, we’ve heard from public health officials that the same type of aggregated, anonymized insights we use in products such as Google Maps could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” it wrote, presenting its mountain of intrusive data collection as a positive. “We hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” it added, suggesting that location data from its users’ devices could “help officials understand changes in essential trips,” inform businesses and help local governments plan and provide more efficient transport services, thus limiting the deadly virus’ spread.
The data it has released, even to the public, is certainly interesting (and quite worrying). For example, location data gleaned from smartphones shows that there are now 85 percent fewer trips to grocery or pharmacy stores in Italy, compared to early February, before the coronavirus struck the country. Italy went on extensive lockdown, and Google’s data shows it. Retail and recreation visits are down 94 percent, trips to parks are down 90 percent, transit stations 87 percent. The country’s infection curve appears to finally be flattening. In contrast, American retail and recreation visits are only down 47 percent, grocery and pharmacy visits 22 percent, parks 19 percent and transit stations 51 percent, suggesting American people are not staying at home nearly enough to dampen the flames of the virus.
Google insists that its new policy will not breach users’ privacy, promising to “adhere to our stringent privacy protocols and protecting people’s privacy. No personally identifiable information,” it claims “will be made available at any point.” This has not reassured everybody. MintPress News spoke to one advertising executive who rolled his eyes at the announcement.
“Your name is only one data point,” they said, noting that “The layers and layers of information you’re giving it,” like where you live, what your interests are, and which person’s social media accounts you keep frequenting (your own), make it beyond easy to identify whose data you are looking at. “It’s you whether you like it or not, even if you’re name’s not attached to it,” they said.’