Eye in the Sky: Google Releasing Location Data During Covid-19

Amidst all the issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic---health, finances, hygiene, depression---you can add privacy to the list. Google (not known to be big on privacy) has begun releasing weekly Community Mobility Reports which show the latest movements of people all over the world using the location data it already collects on users. The company says these reports are intended to help shape public policy during the pandemic by showing where people are going and when.

Google says the data is all anonymized, and it is only collected on users who turn on their location history settings, which are set to off by default. But cyber security experts are dubious. "The question here is do we trust Google, that they're doing their best to anonymize the information," says Parham Eftekhari, executive director of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT). "Is someone going to make a mistake? What's the auditing process like?"

In a situation like the current coronavirus outbreak, big technology can be a positive, as evidence by Google and Apple cooperating on a Covid-19 app. But Eftekhari believes these Google location reports raise concerns on multiple levels. "One, do we know that Google is going to the lengths that it can to make sure that all of this data it is sharing is truly being anonymized," he says. "And what about these third parties that Google is sharing it with...what are they doing with the data, how are they storing and securing this data?"

Even though Google has just announced this new program, it really isn't much different from what they already do with their data. That is why Eftekhari argues that anyone who uses a Google product or service at this point should know they are giving up at least some privacy. "Accept the fact that if you're going to engage in these types of services, that this information is out there," he tells KTRH. "So if you don't want it to be found and be traceable, don't put it out in the first place."

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