Google is presenting the data as aggregated statistics, and it is not publishing the real-time movements of individual users or the places they have visited, Jen Fitzpatrick, a senior vice president, and Karen DeSalvo, Google’s chief health officer, said in a blog post. The technology powering this service is typically used to help people figure out whether a restaurant or bar is crowded.
With the coronavirus, though, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search-and-advertising behemoth wants to make it easier for epidemiologists to gauge the effectiveness of social distancing, a centerpiece in efforts to slow the spread of an outbreak that has sickened more than 1 million people around the world.
The company also signaled it would share anonymous “mobility” data with select, unspecified researchers that would help them “forecast the pandemic.” The aggregated information can help map patterns of movements over time, Google said.
In doing so, Google’s project has illuminated the growing global debate over the role that data-rich tech giants should play in a public health crisis. With detailed dossiers about billions of users at its disposal, and insights about their behavior that rival what most governments can discern on their own, the whole of Silicon Valley is confronting an unprecedented dilemma — how to balance people’s privacy with fighting a pandemic.
“There’s no higher stakes,” said Michelle Richardson, director of the Data and Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who praised Google’s effort as privacy protective. “We’ve talked a lot about commercial use of data over the last couple years and the serious impacts on peoples lives. This is really life and death, so we have to get it right.”
Similar tensions have played out globally in recent weeks. In Singapore, South Korea and Israel, for example, government leaders have taken a much more aggressive tech approach against the coronavirus, compiling data and tapping private-sector sources in an attempt to stop the outbreak at all costs — a strategy some say has contributed to their success.
But those efforts have drawn sharp rebukes from consumer watchdogs, who fear they presage a more permanent erosion of people’s privacy. This week, more than 100 public-interest groups urged governments not to adopt sweeping new surveillance programs to combat the coronavirus, stressing that even in extraordinary times, “human rights law still applies.”
“Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care,” they wrote.
But they added that the overuse of data, including location records, also “threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities — undermining the effectiveness of any public health response.”
Such an approach clashes culturally, politically and legally in the United States, where the legacy of secret government surveillance — brought to light by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — remains fresh on the minds of federal leaders, tech giants and Americans alike. When White House officials began speaking with people in Silicon Valley about leveraging location data to combat the coronavirus, which was first reported by The Washington Post in March, it sparked widespread privacy concerns.
For now, some U.S. officials are working with academics, researchers and tech companies to harness anonymous location information to study social distancing. One such endeavor from Unacast, a mobile ad company, helped The Post pinpoint last month where Americans are following health guidelines. (The nation’s capital did a better job than Wyoming, the data showed.)
Google said Friday it is taking a different approach. Its new hub isn’t a map, but rather, reports that public health officials and Americans can consult to see the percentage increase and decrease in trips to certain public places. The goal is to provide statistical data that can “shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings,” the company executives said.
In one example, shared with The Post ahead of its launch on Friday, Google offered a snapshot of California, where coronavirus infections have recently leveled off. Across the state, visits to retail stores were down 50 percent than usual. Trips to workplaces were down nearly 40 percent, Google data found, while people were home 15 percent more. The company collects the information from users who have opted to share their location history and plans to update the numbers frequently.
Google said it developed its portal with the input of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, governors in states such as Texas and California, and health officials around the world. The CDC and the governors of Texas and California did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
“Having access to these data can allow real-time adjustments to be made in social distancing decisions to further prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, the leader of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said in a statement shared by Google.