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Google to track people's movements and inform governments during coronavirus outbreak

Google has published the location data of its users to allow governments to track whether or not people are abiding by the social distancing measures.
Quinn Patrick Montreal, QC

Google has published the location data of its users around the world as of Friday to allow governments to track whether or not people are abiding by the social distancing measures brought into to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Users data from over 131 countries has been gathered and will be made available on a special website that will "chart movement trends over time by geography," posted Google on one of its blogs according to CTV News.

The data will display trends such as "a percentage point increase or decrease in visits" places like grocery stores, parks, homes and workplaces but not "the absolute number of visits," wrote Jen Fitzpatrick and Karen DeSalvo in the post. Fitzpatrick is the head of Google Maps and Desalvo is Google's Chief Health Officer.

The post assured users that no "personally identifiable information," such as a person's location, contacts or movements, will be made available.

"We hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic," said the post.

"This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings."

Using the same technology applied to detect a traffic jams or to give directions on Google Maps, these new reports will apply "aggregated, anonymized" data from users who have activated their location history.

The company will also add "artificial noise" to its raw data to make it more difficult for users to be identified.

Governments in China, Israel and Singapore have begun monitoring their citizen's movements in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 which has now killed over 50,000 worldwide and infected another million more.

Technology firms in the U.S. and Europe have started sharing their "anonymized" data with governments via their user's smartphones to track the outbreak more efficiently.

Germany is considering the possibility of using a smartphone app to help manage the spread of the disease despite their population traditionally prioritizing privacy.

Activists say this is a perfect pretext for authoritarian regimes to suppress independent speech and increase surveillance, using the threat of COVID-19 as an excuse to gain the people's trust.

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Quinn Patrick
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