Company’s ‘Scoreboard’ Popular Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
By Jeff Benson
Since data company Unacast introduced its “Social Distancing Scoreboard” at the end of last month, seemingly every local news station has used it to gauge how their state and county is doing relative to other areas. (Nevada, for instance, is near the top with a B+, while North Carolina gets a D.)
You might think Unacast developed its rankings from a close analysis of the country’s myriad public cameras, which extend from the Vegas Strip to Fifth Avenue in New York.
However, though highly visible, surveillance cameras didn’t factor into Unacast’s scores. The cellphone in your pocket did.
Unacast is a Norwegian startup that’s now based in Manhattan. The company procures location data — the kind that smartphones are so good at collecting — and repackages it into insights for retailers who want foot-traffic data and marketers who want your money.
Its newest venture ostensibly isn’t a money-making exercise, but it’s certainly generating positive publicity for an industry that’s faced increased scrutiny since a December 2018 expose by The New York Times on location-tracking apps.
Unacast is now using location-tracking data to fight COVID-19 and “help public-health experts, policymakers, academics, community leaders and businesses in retail and real estate gain accurate insights into current public behavior,” according to a news release announcing the scoreboard.
It’s got a lot of info to play with.
According to the release, the company’s COVID-19 “toolkit” relies on public datasets and aggregated and anonymous data from “tens of millions of devices.”
Data From ‘Partners’
Unacast’s website states that the company acquires data from partners, some of which incorporate its software development kit (SDK) directly into their apps, enabling them to send data to company servers.
That information includes device longitude and latitude, speed and direction. In other words, it can see where people are going and how fast.
That’s helpful when comparing distance traveled during a pandemic compared with distance traveled before the outbreak, as the scoreboard does.
On its privacy page, Unacast writes that it insists partners make “proper disclosures relating to the collection of location data” as well as create “user opt-in consent for the collection of location data from mobile devices.”
With regards to the COVID-19 scoreboard, the spokesperson said, that location data is only aggregated and anonymized down to the county level, not neighborhoods or city blocks; the scoreboard is meant for public-health officials looking for hotspots, not merchants looking for “hot spots.”
Mum on Some Data Sources
Still, it might be difficult for citizens to verify that all is in order — because Unacast doesn’t specifically disclose every data source (although companies and individuals can pay data-analytics firms that collect this knowledge, such as AppFigures.)
That’s important because data sources aren’t always obvious.
Take Perfect365, an app that provides beauty tips. A January 2020 report from the Norwegian Consumer Council found that it sent GPS coordinates and phone metadata directly to servers controlled by Unacast or Fluxloop, another Norwegian data broker.
Joseph Jerome, an attorney and the multistate policy director at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit, told Digital Privacy News that advocates have often called for companies to disclose such partnerships.
“When companies just provide generic information about categories of partners, it doesn’t help anyone understand or map this ecosystem,” he said.
Jerome noted, however, that those lists of partners can frequently change; companies likely remain vague to prevent public misstatements.
Tough to Opt Out
But while Unacast’s privacy page insists that it only works with partners that explicitly ask users to opt in, it might be difficult for even vigilant consumers to make informed decisions about how their location data is used.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world of data-sharing and unreadable privacy policies,” Jerome said. “Everyone knows that no one except me is reading these policies.”
Users who want to limit tracking may have to use blunt tools rather than taking a scalpel to individual apps.
“Companies like Unacast generally, though not always, are connecting and tracking users through resettable advertising identifiers on their devices,” Jerome told Digital Privacy News.
Users can opt out of targeted advertising on their Google Android or iOS phone. Doing so, at least on iOS, “zeroes-out” the device ID.
A Slippery Slope
For those who don’t turn off the tap, it becomes harder to stop the flow of data down the pipeline.
Data companies can pass along aggregated and anonymous information to multiple clients, making it difficult for ordinary citizens to extricate themselves.
Unacast’s spokesperson emphasized that the company operated by an internal code of ethics and won’t sell to private investigators, insurance companies or political campaigns, among others.
Helping policymakers make informed decisions about stemming the spread of a deadly virus, unlike helping insurers raise premiums, may be a commendable use for location data.
But if someone is telling you that you’re standing too close, maybe the correct response is to get a little distance from your phone.
Jeff Benson is a Nevada writer.