The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: We asked more than 100 tech experts if U.S. should use location data to track coronavirus. They were split.


with Tonya Riley

With Tonya Riley

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The U.S. government should not harness Americans' location data in an attempt to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a very slim majority of tech experts surveyed by The Technology 202. 

Fifty-one percent of our standing panel of experts say the United States should not emulate other countries including South Korea, Israel and China in adopting digital surveillance measures. Yet the close vote underscores the tensions even within industry between preserving privacy and pulling out all the stops to respond to a public health crisis that has already claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Americans. 

Niki Christoff, Salesforce senior vice president of strategy and government relations, said the United States should be extremely cautious about emergency measures that use location, contact or health app data. 

“This crisis is challenging all of us with unprecedented questions about balancing public safety against privacy protections like consent, the ability to delete and strict oversight of use by private companies and the government questions without easy answers,” Christoff said. “Some of the countries using personal data to track and quarantine individuals aren't implementing any of these protections, which is concerning.” 

The Technology 202 Network comprises more than 100 tech leaders from across government, industry and the consumer advocacy community invited to vote in our ongoing surveys. (You can see the full list of experts here. Some were granted anonymity in exchange for their participation.) 

The U.S. is increasingly considering ways to get in the location-tracking game: The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local governments, have started to receive data about the location of millions of cell phones from the mobile advertising industry. The data shows which retailers, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk spreading the virus. The goal is reportedly to create a portal for officials that contains geolocation data in as many as 500 cities across the country. And my colleagues reported earlier this month that companies including Facebook and Google were in discussions with the U.S. government about how to use smartphone location data in an anonymous, aggregated form to map the spread of the infection. 

Many Network members argue that there isn’t enough evidence that phone location is effective in combating the coronavirus and other responses should be explored first. 

“Aggregate and anonymized location data may be useful to track trends, but public health officials agree that at this point in time, using individualized location data to do contact chaining is not a good use of resources, and data experts agree that the technique is not precise enough for accurate results,” said Jennifer Granick, the American Civil Liberties Union’s surveillance and cybersecurity counsel. “There are far more important things we can do widespread testing, social distancing, building up hospital resources rather than hoping that shiny technology will somehow save the day.”

Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute, said “limiting the spread of covid-19 requires, first and foremost, robust public health infrastructures and a social safety net that enables everyone to safely take necessary precautions, including quarantine and social distancing.” 

And the U.S. government may not be able to handle the job, added Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, a non-profit focused on broadband access. “The U.S. government is struggling with being able to track medical supplies at a time when ineptitude has dire consequences,” Ochillo said. “I doubt that adding the power and vast responsibility of tracking people will improve outcomes.”

Some experts warned against the U.S. government broadly expanding its surveillance powers in a time of crisis, as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. 

“In moments of crisis, it’s critical that we don’t fall into the trap of relying on surveillance,” said Rashad Robinson, president of civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. “I’m a New Yorker, born and raised — and I can’t help but be reminded of 9/11 as we think about how our state and federal governments respond in times of emergency.”

Other countries have taken a different approach. Phone location tracking has been a key prong of Asia's efforts to contain the virus. South Korea, for instance, sends people alerts that notify them of nearby covid-19 cases. China has taken perhaps the most extreme measures, using its sophisticated facial recognition and data from mobile carriers to track down people who slipped lockdowns. And Israel was reportedly using a trove of location data the government collected for fighting terrorism to trace the movements of people who contracted coronavirus and identify those who should be quarantined. 

And a hefty 49 percent minority of Network experts supported the United States following other countries’ playbooks, given the growing urgency of the crisis. 

“This step is a drastic one and should not be taken lightly in this country,” said Michael Powell, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman during the George W. Bush administration, who now serves as the chief of the NCTA Internet & Television Association. “However, the critical importance of physical distancing and to prevent recurrence may well justify such an extreme measure.” 

“It should be possible for mobile phone companies to identify local spots where people gather, using anonymized mobile phone location data, WITHOUT sacrificing personal privacy,” said Hadi Partovi, chief executive of and an early investor in Facebook, Uber and Airbnb. “Simply knowing the cities, neighborhoods, and regions where Americans are not practicing ‘shelter at home’ would be incredibly helpful.”

Many said they supported using location data as long as privacy protections were in place. “Being able to target spread of the virus is massively important,” said Karla Monterroso, the head of Code 2040, which advocates for diversity in the tech industry. “It could support the targeting of resources and the future of shelter-in-place orders in a way that gives guiding data to a community. It cannot, however, then be used as a way to commodify our communities or individuals.” 

And some stressed they would want a time limit set on the use of such data. “While intrusive, I think we are in unprecedented times and I think reporting has shown that this was a key measure to reducing spread in China and South Korea. However, I also would want to make sure that we have clear ability to pull back on this when covid-19 is over - would not want this to extend to normal times,” said Frida Polli, chief executive of A.I. start-up Pymetrics. 

Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman during the Obama administration, said “the missing component in the government’s [coronavirus] response has been information, so more information serves us all well.”  

Wheeler offered several specific ways privacy could be protected – including giving consumers the ability to opt in to the tracking for only a limited amount of time. Wheeler said the government could commit to only using that data for health purposes – and only collecting data that's necessary. For instance he said, “where” people are “not with whom like the Israelis are doing." 

Some experts who said they were wary of following other countries' lead on location tracking suggested there could be a way forward in the U.S. with less invasive measures. “A solution that allows a person to retain control of their location history without revealing the entirety of their location history, while also ensuring the privacy of everyone involved, would be ideal, but difficult,” said Erica Baker, a principal group engineering manager at Microsoft. 

“One would hope that the U.S. government, if it attempted such, would be wise enough to involve experts in building good public-sector technology tooling, like the team at Code for America or the many United States Digital Service alums that have a wealth of knowledge and experience in this space,” Baker said.  


— More responses from The Technology 202 Network about whether the U.S. should adopt similar location-tracking measures as other countries to stop the spread of coronavirus: 

  • NO: “In times of crisis, technology becomes retrofitted to meet new challenges, but just because location tracking of individuals is possible, it does not mean it will help stop the spread of the virus. I would much rather see smart phone emergency alerts be used to give location information to let people know where tests are available.” – Joan Donovan, the director of the technology and social change research project at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government
  • YES: “Absolutely.  Health researchers and the CDC need to identify and provide non-clinical geo-location datasets for use in developing forecasting models and informing in covid-19 disease surveillance.” Kevin Richards, vice president of U.S. government relations at SAP
  • NO: Unlike their counterparts in Korea, U.S. citizens have little reason to trust their government or corporations to use surveillance authority for the public good.” – Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor and author of “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” 
  • YES: “Such measures should not be done wantonly or indefinitely. If such measures were duly authorized by Congress or under the appropriate emergency powers of the President and if it were demonstrated that such tracking would significantly limit the spread of the virus and/or facilitate our national recovery, then they may be appropriate.” – Klon Kitchen, tech policy lead at the Heritage Foundation
  • NO: “At this point in most of the the United States the virus is likely very widely spread. This makes the primary use of location data, called contact tracing, not a very good use of our resources.” – Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • YES:With proper protections and the right public/private partnership, data on virus spread can be helpful to the flight against this global medical emergency.  The technology industry has been working with federal, state and local governments to deploy products and services that save lives and allow us all to work and learn remotely.” – Jason Oxman, Information Technology Industry Council president
  • NO:While other countries have implemented this approach with different degrees of success, I have significant concerns, given the current political and regulatory environment, that we would be able to do successfully and without significant and permanent erosion of our civil rights.” – Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the founder and chief executive of ReadySet
  • YES: “We do not have any real privacy anyway.  Facebook, Google and every shopping website already knows my location so why not use it for public health?” – Network member who answered under condition of anonymity 
  • NO: Location data on its own is a poor proxy for the information that we critically: people's actual infection rates as measured through COVID19 testing. What we need is more test centers -- not location data.” – Ashkan Soltani, former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist 
  • NO: “No, rather than copying other countries the U.S. can and should find appropriate ways to harness the power of big data to protect the public's health consistent with American values.” – Jesse Blumenthal, vice president of technology and innovation policy for the Stand Together community, commonly known as the Koch network
  • NO: “Given the clear impact upon privacy and civil liberties, federal use of location data from smartphones to track the movements of healthy and sick people should only go forward if doing so is shown to be effective in limiting the spread elsewhere and public health experts recommend, and even then only with safeguards.” – Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project at the Demand Progress Educational Fund


BITS: Democratic presidential candidates are throwing their support behind a nationwide strike of Instacart delivery workers today. Workers are pushing for better protections during the coronavirus pandemic, including hand sanitizer and additional hazard pay.

From Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): 

Former vice president Joe Biden also urged Instacart to “step up” and protect workers.

“Workers on the frontlines of this pandemic deserve strong protections for both their health and their paychecks — and that includes gig economy workers who are stepping up and delivering groceries during a time of national need,” he added in a statement to The Post.

Workers are also asking for an increase in the app’s default tip and an indefinite extension of sick pay for workers affected by covid-19, my colleague Nitasha Tiku reports. They intend to strike until the company meets their demands. Instacart announced several additional measures for workers on Friday after the strike was announced, including extending its 14-day sick leave for diagnosed workers through May and that it would partner with a third party to make hand sanitizer for workers.

“They’re so tragically predictable,” lead organizer Vanessa Bain told Nitasha. “Walk-off is still on.”

The strike is unlikely to be the last as grocery and gig workers push for new workplace safety measures as they serve on the front lines of the pandemic. A group of Whole Foods workers under the name “Whole Worker” is asking workers to stay home tomorrow as part of efforts to get the company to address safety demands. Amazon workers in Staten Island will also strike today in protest of working conditions at their warehouse. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) 

NIBBLES: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg sees the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to show that the company has learned from its past mistakes. But the company's ongoing battle with misinformation about the virus could stand in the way of the beleaguered social media platform’s redemption, my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reports.

Nearly 50 percent of Facebook's news feed is about the coronavirus, but only a small number of users influence the feeds of everyone else, according to an internal report reviewed by The Post. That has made it even more urgent that the company step in to remove coronavirus misinformation, something that Zuckerberg committed to doing in January. Facebook has even weighed reaching out to influencers with more accurate information on the disease, an unexpectedly hands-on approach by the company in dealing with user-generated content.

But the company's decision to send home the majority of its 15,000 human moderators further complicates those efforts. The company now relies more on software to moderate content, but that technology is less effective at flagging new information, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, told Elizabeth.

Zuckerberg's personal involvement in the company's coronavirus response, which has included reaching out to global public health officials directly, is merely a “charm offensive," said a former mentor to Zuckerberg who has become a prominent critic. 

“Until Facebook gets rid of algorithmic amplification that is designed to maximize attention, the site will always be overrun by conspiracies,” he told Elizabeth.

BYTES: Gig workers and their advocates say the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package does more to bail out companies including Airbnb and Uber than actually protecting their workers, my colleagues Tony Romm and Faiz Siddiqui report. The rescue package will put hundreds of dollars each week into the pockets of gig workers traditionally left out of unemployment benefits. 

“Companies are essentially getting a bailout because they won’t be paying unemployment insurance as a result,” Veena Dubal, an associate professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, told my colleagues. “It could get workers money, but maybe not in the rapid way they need money.”

Right now, most gig economy companies don't pay into state unemployment benefits for workers. Instead of challenging this status quo, lawmakers have set up a fund that states will distribute to self-employed workers affected by the outbreak. But because state processes for unemployment vary, it could take weeks for some gig workers to obtain benefits, Tony and Faiz report.  

The record number of unemployment claims states are already receiving could make implementing the new program even more complex. “The challenge is, this has never been done,” said Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.


— News from the public sector:

L.A. County got 170 broken ventilators from feds; Silicon Valley is fixing them, Newsom says (LA Times)

Firms rush to make at-home tests for coronavirus (Laurie McGinley, Steven Mufson and Elizabeth Dwoskin)

Medical Expert Who Corrects Trump Is Now a Target of the Far Right (The New York Times)

U.K. Response Unit to Tackle Coronavirus Misinformation Online (Bloomberg)


— News from the private sector:

Facebook, Google and Twitter Struggle to Handle November’s Election (The New York Times)

Microsoft Alters Policy on Facial-Recognition Investments (The Wall Street Journal)

Venmo and Cash App want to deliver government stimulus payments (CNN)


— News trending around the web:

Two Best Friends and the Global Treasure Hunt for Coronavirus Supplies (The Wall Street Journal)

While the Bay Area shelters in place, construction on mansions and luxury condos continues (Nitasha Tiku)

A Man Asked Out His Neighbour By Drone In The Coronavirus Lockdown And I Believe In Love Again (BuzzFeed News)


Jay Carney, Amazon's senior vice president for global corporate affairs, discusses the company's coronavirus response on CNN: