Using Mobile Technology To Track Covid-19

The United States government as well as their counterparts in Israel are looking at way s to use cell phones to combat the spread of Covid-19.

The idea is to use location-based data from tech giants the likes of Facebook and Google, and others, to help with this effort, according to Elizabeth Montalbano writing on

U.S. officials are in active discussions with technology giants like Facebook and Google as well as public health experts about how potentially to use location data collected from cell phones to track whether people are practicing social distancing or to track the movements of those infected with COVID-19, in order to stem the outbreak, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The government is mulling this potential compiling of people’s personal and location-specific data with the purpose of mapping the spread of infection and using this knowledge to provide solutions to the problem, according to the report.

By analyzing the movement trends of smartphone owners, officials believe they can track the spread of COVID-19 and possibly limit the damage it has already caused, the report said. They also could use location-based information to see if people are indeed practicing recommended and, in some places, mandated social distancing, which requires people to ensure a certain amount of space between themselves and others when meeting people on the street or in a shop.

Israel’s security service Shin Bet is using technology it has been using to track Palestinian militants to track Covid-19 cases.

Many privacy advocates are concerned that, though, these efforts are being done in the interest of public health, where and when does it stop? Will these new found surveillance powers be given up once Covid-19 is under control?

Sara Morrison in Recode writes:

Still, even the idea must seem unsettling to some. Many Americans lack trust in both the federal government and in how companies handle their personal data, so it’s understandable that even a hint of collaboration between the two would come under suspicion. We’ve also seen a litany of problematic privacy invasions from other countries’ governments, as they battle this virus.


Though this is a valid argument, in the U.S. at least there are safeguards in place to stop abuse of this data.

However, in this case, there are some limits to what the government can get from tech companies. America has rules when it comes to what it can force businesses and individuals to give up and how it can force them to do it. Cellphone location data is seen as particularly sensitive because of the immense amount of personal information that can be gleaned from it. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently moved to issue massive fines to cellular phone carriers that were accused of selling individual location data; in 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to access an individual’s cellphone location data.


In my opinion, we should allow the government the authority to surveil, but limit it with legislation. We also need to make sure that once Covid-19 is under control and these powers aren’t needed anymore, they are relinquished.

It seems like even the Electronic Frontier Foundation is willing to allow the government some leeway.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, similarly says that current circumstances give the government a little more leeway here — but just a little — to strike the balance between gathering information for the public good and protecting individuals’ privacy.

“We are in the middle of a public health crisis,” Schwartz told Recode. “And some rebalancing of collective and individual interests may be appropriate. But those adjustments need to be temporary and science-driven and not discriminate.

“Any time you’ve got location data in the mix, that’s a concern,” he added.

The government must be as restrictive as possible with the data it uses, how it uses it, and for how long, Schwartz said.


What do you think? Should we, the public, be okay with more surveillance to help combat Covid-19? Or is this just to creepy and over reaching.

Image by Silviu Costin Iancu from Pixabay


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