Amid COVID-19, Rush to Use Geodata Apps Raises Abuse Fears

By Joanne Cleaver

Sunday was warm and sunny in Charlotte, N.C.

Despite urgent directives from public health officials for all residents to stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many flocked to the parks adjacent to the fast-growing central business district — to walk, run, skate, play with their dogs and picnic. 

The cumulative effect of their misbehavior was recorded by Unacast, a Norwegian data firm that uses geolocation information from cellphones and apps to map individual travel patterns.

Overall, North Carolina earned a C on the new Unacast Social Distancing Scoreboard, and the company estimated that Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte and adjacent suburbs, charted a 40% drop in the average distance traveled. 

Two days later — Tuesday, March 31 — county officials closed all public parks, partly in response to the information they had received from geolocation services. 

Geolocation data firms are having a moment.  In the words of Cuebiq, a New York company that offers daily human movement trends by county, making the data available for free is “part of our commitment to sharing data for the greater good.”

New ‘Hotspot’ Map  

Meanwhile, using publicly available data from government sources, University of Chicago researchers created a “COVID-19” hotspot map that indicates the concentration of known cases on a per-capita basis. It helps see the patterns of illness in terms equalized for population density.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the value of geolocation mapping as a global pandemic escalates, but does the urgency open the way for other, less noble, uses of the tracking data, asked Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. 

“This is one example of a company going public with the use of data that seemingly has a social benefit, but I’m concerned that this is used to justify the widespread use of data every day,” King told Digital Privacy News. 

Data Critical to Apps

Geolocation data collection is essential to many apps and elements of phone service, King pointed out, so much so that completely opting out is almost impossible. 

The urgent, and arguably compelling, public-health rationale for using consumers’ collected data is the ideal cover for glossing over the lack of consumer permission, she said.

“Even if you turn off location services on your phone, your data is being collected,” King said. “It’s almost intentionally disingenuous, to use this to highlight the [public-health] benefits, without also highlighting the fact that you don’t have a clue that it’s being used.

“It’s your data, but you clearly don’t control it.” 

Unacast’s Position

Unacast told Digital Privacy News through a spokesperson that its data cannot get more specific than the county level and that the company adhered to the most stringent data-collection and use policies.

Still, consultants say, the curious could be easily tempted to use additional data — from databases and their knowledge of certain areas — to piece together privacy-piercing details. 

“The argument is that [the data being used] is only in a general vicinity,” said Victoria McIntosh, a data-privacy consultant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “but what if that data is combined with other data?” 

Key Business Model

The business model of geolocation firms is built on intersecting where people are with what they might buy or do, McIntosh noted.

For instance, retailers want to send instant coupons to people near their stores — and that means they blend geolocation data with their own information to find current and prospective customers, whom they already know through financial and account data.

As well, McIntosh told Digital Privacy News, many terms of service for apps and cell phones specify that individual data can be used by public-health officials.  

Strong Danger of Abuse

Finally, in-real-life information and relationships are easily merged with geolocation data, equipping the curious with rich fodder for speculation, Stanford’s King said.

Counties with few residents or with unique cultures likely already know who’s doing what and going where, and geolocation data can fuel assumptions about who is responsible for the spread of disease, experts said.

The Unacast model, for instance, gave Wyoming a failing grade for avoiding social distancing, but the few Wyoming residents already live far apart, King told Digital Privacy News.

“I was immediately skeptical of how they’re accounting for geographic differences,” she said. “In Wyoming, you have to travel to even accomplish social distancing.” 

Joanne Cleaver is a writer in Charlotte, N.C.

Image: Getty/Peter Zelei Images