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The Technology 202: Apple is now helping officials track how well coronavirus social distancing works

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with Tonya Riley

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Apple is the latest tech company to tap its troves of consumer data to help public officials fight the coronavirus. 

The company yesterday unveiled a new tool that pulls data from its Maps service to help officials measure how effective social distancing measures are around the world. The tool tracks how citizens' driving, walking or public transit habits are changing based on their searches for directions to places.  

The data is presented in an anonymous, aggregated form, and officials can view it down to the city level. For instance, it shows that in Washington, requests for public transit directions – for instance, by bus or subway – declined 83 percent since January 13. Even requests for walking directions were down 66 percent, suggesting that the restrictions are having a significant effect. 

This tool can also compare the effects of social distancing between cities, or even between countries. 

Washington is increasingly looking to tech companies such as Apple as it seeks more data to understand whether social distancing policies are working – and make crucial decisions about how and when to re-open parts of the economy. 

But the companies are walking a fine line as they try to balance pressure from governments to take steps to maintain public health with their customers’ privacy expectations. 

This is a particularly delicate tightrope for Apple, which has made strong user privacy a central component to its marketing pitch. 

It's telling that Apple chief executive Tim Cook led with privacy when announcing the initiative:

Apple says that the data isn't associated with any individual's Apple ID and that it doesn't keep a log of where you've been. Its data presents a birds-eye view of how people are moving – or at least, thinking about moving as they type in directions. 

This may not provide as much utility to public health officials as data that tracks their movements or presents what specific locations people are actually visiting within cities. And it's a far cry from the ways that other countries are using location data to map the spread of the virus. In South Korea, for instance, public officials have used cell phone location data to alert people if they’ve come in contact with the virus. In China, officials used their vast digital surveillance apparatus to monitor people’s movements and ensure they were abiding by quarantines.

But as my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler notes, it's still uncomfortable for Apple – a company that ran ads that say “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone” – to show how much data they're holding about consumers. And how it can be deployed for purposes people likely never imagined when they opened the app to find directions. From Fowler:

Facebook and Google have already made aggregated location data available in the fight against the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal reports that public health officials at the federal and state level are using cellphone location data from the mobile advertising industry to trace people's movement during the pandemic. 

And by contrast, Apple's decision seems tame. Google's aggregated data set, for instance, lets officials know how much people are traveling to specific businesses, grocery stores and pharmacies, using the same technology that underpins the Google Maps feature that lets you know how crowded a restaurant might be.

Still, it's all helpful to stop the spread, health experts say. Farzad Mostashari, the former national coordinator for health information technology at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said such systems “can be a very helpful tool for understanding both the risks of outbreak resurgence and the potential need for local leaders to push further on social distancing initiatives.” Mostashari now serves as chief executive of the health start-up Aledade.

There have already been signs of public health officials citing tech companies’ data when trying to evaluate their own policies. At a news conference in Philadelphia earlier this month, city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Google analytics data showed that residents were doing a pretty good job of social distancing, but compared to other cities they could do better. He gave the city's efforts a B plus.

Apple, Facebook and Google's efforts could be increasingly in the spotlight as they collaborate more directly with the White House on the coronavirus response. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai and Cook are among the executives who will participate in President Trump's Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, which will work on a plan to restart the economy. 

Tech companies are also building tools that would track whether individuals come in contact with the coronavirus. One ambitious effort Apple and Google are working on would use Bluetooth signals to detect whether a person’s cellphone has been near other individuals who mark themselves as diagnosed with the coronavirus in a public health app. 

Leveraging aggregated data like the tool Apple revealed yesterday raises fewer privacy concerns, Mostashari said. 

“Unlike the idea of Bluetooth contact tracing, this doesn't raise privacy concerns because it can be conducted on an anonymous, aggregate sample and never requires re-identification or linkage, he said. 

Note to readers: The Technology 202 is operating on a limited schedule this week, publishing only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We'll be back to our regular schedule next week. 


BITS: Google and Facebook may see their advertising revenue decline for the first time ever as the economy slumps from the coronavirus pandemic, Daisuke Wakabayashi, Tiffany Hsu and Mike Isaac report for the New York Times. The bleak outlook for the two advertising giants, which receive more than half of digital ad spend, reflects an even grimmer future for the rest of the digital advertising industry. 

Significant slumps in entertainment and travel ads have hit Google the hardest. Facebook ads have declined 35 to 50 percent in price, analysts tell the Times. 

But even steeper declines in restaurant, bar and local business ads mean that smaller competitors like Yelp have had to cut costs by furloughing and laying off more than 2,000 employees. News sites, which have suffered under the two tech giants' advertising reign, have also seen an uptick in layoffs.  

Google and Facebook, in contrast to start-ups reliant on digital ads, are more likely to recover once the pandemic is over.

“To the extent that people are still spending, it will be even more concentrated with Google and Facebook,” said Nicole Perrin, principal analyst at research firm eMarketer. “They are likely going to end up in a stronger position after all this is over.” 

NIBBLES: Three more Amazon warehouse workers say that the company fired them after they spoke out about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, Sebastian Herrera at the Wall Street Journal reports. The workers' claims could fuel already growing concerns from politicians and regulators over the company's labor practices. 

One of the fired workers, Courtney Bowden, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. She says she was fired for trying to organize for paid sick leave for part-time workers.

“They’re trying to get rid of organizers,”  Bowden said. “We are being targeted.”

Amazon told the Journal she was fired for retaliating against a co-worker. The company denied any of the terminated workers were terminated for speaking out about workplace conditions. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) 

The firings follow the high-profile termination of Chris Smalls, a worker at an Amazon facility in Staten Island who staged a walkout last month. Amazon claimed he was fired for coming into work after being exposed to the coronavirus, but both the New York attorney general and members of Congress have called for an investigation into his termination. 

Amazon also fired two corporate employees for speaking out about warehouse conditions last week, my colleague Jay Greene reports. The company acknowledged yesterday that a manager at its Hawthorne, Calif., warehouse died on March 31 from covid-19, the first reported coronavirus-related death among its workers, Jay writes.

BYTES: More than two dozen Democratic senators are urging congressional leaders to pass $1 billion in additional funding for a program that provides phone and Internet connectivity for low-income Americans. They say need for the Lifeline assistance program is increasing as the pandemic forces a surge in demand for Internet access.

“Social distancing, school closures, layoffs, and shelter-in-place rules have spurred a dramatic new reliance on telework, distance education, online employment, and telehealth,” the group led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a letter to Senate and House leadership. “No one should have to put their health at risk, lose employment, lose access to education, or face isolation because they cannot afford broadband.”

More funding would also enable the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, to expand the choice of eligible broadband providers. Congress also wants the FCC to ensure recipients have enough data for key services such as telehealth and video chat services. Advocacy groups report that vulnerable populations are already rationing minutes and data during the pandemic, and urged the agency to expand access last month.


— Technology news from the public sector:

Washington AG sues Facebook over political ads (Reuters)

French court limits Amazon deliveries to essential items amid coronavirus risk (Politico)


— Technology news from the private sector:

Airbnb is raising $1 billion in debt, its second fundraising round in just two weeks, as the company tries to navigate a tough economic landscape (Business Insider)

Amazon slashes commission rates for program that gives publishers a cut of sales (CNBC)

Lawsuit Accuses Grubhub, Postmates, DoorDash, and Uber of Unlawfully Driving Up Restaurant Prices (Gizmodo)

Google is lowering Nest camera quality ‘to conserve internet resources' (TechCrunch)


— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

Aw, Snap! Your Birthday Party Has Gone Virtual (The Wall Street Journal)

The Rise of a Hindu Vigilante in the Age of WhatsApp and Modi (Wired)


  • Pete Villano joined Microsoft’s U.S. Government Affairs team as a director of Azure government affairs. He joins Microsoft from the House Armed Services Committee, where he served as professional staff member and subcommittee staff director since 2010.


  • The Open Technology Institute will host an online event on work-from-home digital security on April 21 at 11:00am.