Tech Companies Use Data to Help in Fight Against Coronavirus

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Several big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, have announced that they want to help in the fight against the coronavirus. The companies have collected lots of information on their users, and they are hoping to put this to good use. They want to help organizations understand how, and at what rate, the virus spreads. The companies have been under a lot of scrutiny for collecting all this data about their users. They might think that this could turn people around.

Big Data and Privacy

We have to be aware that whenever we go online information about our behavior is stored. Many big companies, like Google and Facebook, collect all sorts of information about their users. All this data is, for instance, scanned to help advertisers to only show you things that are relevant for you.

In this time we see many new applications being developed that track the coronavirus. These apps want to know a lot of personal information about you, and some don’t really consider the safety of your private data. Over the past week big data companies have said that they are going to use the information they have collected to help in the fight against the virus. But we have to stay aware of what this means for our privacy and security.

Google’s Database Put to Use

On Friday, Google published data that shows the movement of people in areas hit by the coronavirus. How do they get this information? Everybody who uses Google, or any of their apps, has the option to share their location history with the company. Many people opt out of this, since they don’t want their movements tracked. But for the people who don’t it means that Google can log where you go.

The company released reports about 131 countries, named the Covid-19 Mobility Reports. In these reports the movement of people during lockdown has been compared to movements outside of lockdown. Google decided to not just release this information to authorities, but also to the public. They claim they want to be as transparent as possible in what is shared, since they have been part of a debate about privacy for a long time. This debate has become very much alive again in the past few weeks, with several corona tracking apps emerging that don’t value their users privacy as much.

Privacy and Security

Google stated that they took measures to ensure that individuals could not be identified through the reports. This type of data collection can easily feel like surveillance of people, so they have to be very careful. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, who is an academic from London’s Imperial College’s Computational Privacy Group, said that Google has taken good steps to shrink privacy risks. He did also ask that the company provide more detail on the technical side of things. This can help external researchers to ensure that they’re really safeguarding people’s privacy.

Anyone can view the reports, since they have been made public. You can search for more regional data in most of the reports. Google will provide you with a PDF with the collected data after you’ve selected the region that you want the information of. This way, you don’t have to stay online to access it, and it can be taken into the field.

Facebook Following in Google’s Footsteps

Facebook has also shared location data with researchers in several countries. But unlike Google they did not make this public. The data is only available through Data for Good. This program started in 2017 and can only be accessed by universities and non-profit organizations. The company has now decided to expand that program. It will provide three new maps for forecasting where the virus will spread and they will also show whether people are staying at home. The data for this information will be collected in the Facebook app.

The Facebook app will now show a pop-up for some users in the US, which asks them to fill in a survey about disease symptoms. This survey was created by Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological center. It is part of a new symptom mapping project that will help to predict where the virus will hit next and where medical resources are needed. The researchers said that they “won’t share individual survey responses with Facebook, and Facebook won’t share information about who you are with the researchers.”

Is it Helpful?

Big companies are all trying to do the best they can to help out during this time. We see factories restructuring their manufacturing lines to manufacture ventilators and face masks. But sharing location data does also help health organizations. They now know where people are staying at home and where they are not. This means that they can be more targeted in their messaging to people. Hopefully the information can also really help in mapping out the path of the disease so that more lives can be saved.

The only risk that comes with this is that this positive spin on collecting private data might undo some of the work that has been done by advocates for online privacy. The debate was getting quite heated and people were worried about what was happening to their information. Now that the benefits of this data collection is displayed it might result in less of a backlash for companies.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.