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US govt reportedly using location data from mobile ads to track coronavirus spread

Not only the US but other governments, including that of India, are now tracking citizens to study the coronavirus spread.

twitter-logo Shubham Verma   New Delhi     Last Updated: March 30, 2020  | 15:01 IST
(Source: Reuters)

Highlights

  • US government is said to be using the ad location data for surveillance.
  • This data will enable the government to track the spread of coronavirus.
  • Indian government is also tracking its citizens via the Corona Kavach app.

The coronavirus pandemic has encouraged governments across the world to unleash what has been termed the 'violation of privacy' by security analysts. US government officials are now moving ahead in their attempts to track citizens using the mobile phone location data from the mobile ad industry. The data collected by advertisers through various platforms, such as Facebook, will be used by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in alliance with national and state governments in the US, to track the movement of Americans way within the areas of 'geographical interest', according to The Wall Street Journal.

The data will be used by the government to collate the geolocation information of Americans across 500 cities in the US to build a national portal. This will help the government in ensuring how well the citizens are complying with the quarantine orders. While this move will bring the government closer to tracking the movement of potentially infected citizens and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, it has concurrently raised the questions of privacy. According to the WSJ report, the privacy advocates are debating on what should the limits to this data collection method be -- the data should only be used for the said purpose and not for anything else beyond it.

But the US government is not the first one to have initiated surveillance on its citizens. The governments elsewhere, including those in Europe, China, Singapore, South Korea, and even India have devised methods to extract the mobile phone data from the local carriers and monitor the citizens in their countries. The WSJ reports that the telecom operators in the European Union have allegedly shared user data with health authorities in Germany, Italy, and Austria. A separate report by The New York Times said that the Israeli government has authorised the use of location data sourced from mobile phones to track the extent of coronavirus spread, but for a limited time.

Here in India, the government recently launched the 'Corona Kavach' app for citizens that asks for their permission to access the location data on the mobile phone to inform citizens if they are in the high-risk region. "The data will be used to conduct analysis and provide information about the active COVID 19 cases in India. Additional features are also added to track your breathing capacity and a survey form to keep a self-check" - reads the app's changelog on the Google Play store. The app uses the phone's GPS to track the user's movement but the government has emphasised that the identity of the users will not be disclosed to the government, third parties or stored on any server.

Various governments around the globe have been mulling to introduce a tracking system that sneaks into the mobile phones of their citizens and obtain location data. This has been seen as a blatant violation of privacy by analysts, but the governments have defended their intentions so far. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the need to track the movement of citizens has been prioritised by the governments in many countries. The motive is strong, so much so that a global tracking and data-sharing system is said to be underway.

GSMA, an international body that monitors and regularises the mobile phone industry told The Guardian that it is in talks with at least one company that is "capable of tracking individuals globally through their mobile devices." Moving beyond the realms of their own countries, the governments can keep a track of people in unison. However, a GSMA spokesperson has denied the development that is taking place towards any such project, as per the report.

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