Amid the outbreak of COVID-19, internet giant Google has taken to monitoring the activities of people across the globe by tracking their Google Maps location history. This comes as a result of the newly released COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which set out to demonstrate how community activity in every country across the world has changed since the pandemic began earlier this year.
As governments around the world scramble to find accurate data, metrics and information tools to better inform the measures that ought to be put in place to fight the spread of the coronavirus, concerns around privacy in relation to location history data come once again to the fore.
A treasure trove for mobility data
The series of reports, released on April 5 and updated daily, detail the percentage change in the use of certain activities against a baseline (the average value for the corresponding day of the week between January 3 and February 6). They include visits to retail spaces, recreational areas, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, workplaces, transit stations as well as people’s own homes.
The reports are segregated by country, with data from each country’s report being further divided up by region—providing the research with additional depth and scope.
As of April 15, for example, the United States has seen a 45% decline in visits to retail and recreational spaces (i.e. restaurants, cafes, malls, theme parks, museums, libraries, movie theaters, etc.), a 38% decline in trips to work, and a 14% rise in the number of people remaining at home.
The very same numbers are even more pronounced in New York state, where declines of 62% and 48% were observed for visits to retail and recreational spaces and trips to work respectively, and with the number of people remaining at home rising by 18%.
The U.S. has been severely impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19, seeing more cases and more fatalities than in any other country. New York has been particularly hard-hit, becoming the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. and suffering more than 188,000 cases and nearly 11,000 deaths, according to mid-April figures by Johns Hopkins University.
While outside of the U.S., the mobility trends recorded by Google do indeed differ substantially from country-to-country, in general, they reflect a considerable slowdown in all-round mobility.
For example, in Singapore—which has recorded less than 4,000 COVID-19 cases—even larger mobility changes were observed in the location history data. Drop-offs of 61% and 51% were recorded for visits to retail and recreational spaces and trips to work respectively, while home visits rose by some 32%.
In China, the use of Google services is currently prohibited—meaning no data location history exists for users in that country.
According to Google, the reports were released with the intention of helping people and organizations to “understand responses to social distancing guidance related to COVID-19.” However, they note that reports are not intended to be used for “medical diagnostic, prognostic, or treatment purposes,” or for “guidance on personal travel plans,” according to the company.
Location history: Balancing public health and privacy
Google unmistakably has the largest and most accurate pool of location data about people from around the globe. According to a Google blog post from February, more than one billion people worldwide actively use Google Maps—the company’s satellite-driven web mapping service.
With a significant number of people using Google Maps daily to navigate places and to travel, the tech giant is afforded a tremendous advantage in terms of their access to information. So much so, in fact, that with the new mobility reports, researchers and policymakers alike are able to rely on Google’s location data to make decisions in the fight against COVID-19.
According to the tech giant, “this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips,” adding, for example, that persistent visits to transportation hubs “might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing.”
Google adds in a blog post announcing the reports that ultimately understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, “can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”
While the reports indeed offer authorities clear insights, the information has nevertheless fueled new concerns around privacy.
Google, for its part, claims that the location history it collects is anonymized and secure, and that it adheres to “stringent privacy protocols”. The company also points out that the location history data it collects only applies to users who have turned on the ‘Location History’ setting, which is off by default.
However, there are indeed broader trends to keep in mind. “Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,”warn of a group of academics from Computational Privacy Group of the Imperial College London on the subject of COVID-19 contact tracing.
While, indeed, the large-scale collection of location history data may appear to be more benign—and, ostensibly helpful—than contact tracing; the same warning may nevertheless come to hold equally true as the crisis continues to unfold.