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U.S. government officials use mobile ad location data to study the spread of the coronavirus

U.S. government officials use location data from mobile phone industry from the mobile advertising industry – not data from the providers themselves – to monitor the movements of Americans during the coronavirus outbreak, Wall Street Journal reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, together with national and local authorities, have received cell phone data on people in areas of “geographical interest”, the WSJ reports.

The goal is to create a government portal with geolocation information from about 500 cities across the country, to help track how well people are fulfilling home orders, according to the WSJ. An example of how the anonymized data was reportedly used: Researchers found that large numbers of people gathered in a park in New York City and notified local authorities.

The use of even anonymized data raises numerous privacy issues, with privacy advocates setting limits on how such data can be used and prevent its use for other purposes, the WSJ reported.

Other countries have used mobile phone data to track civilian movements during the pandemic; mobile operators in the European Union have reportedly shared some data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria. although details about specific patients were not included. Israel authorized the use of mobile phone location data to track the virus, with data to be used in a “targeted, time-limited and limited activity,” The New York Times.

China’s tracking system sends information to law enforcement officers while Taiwan “Electronic fence” warns authorities when a quarantined person moves away from home. And South Korea used cell phone location data to create a public map of coronavirus patients, to track where people may have been exposed.

Cell phone companies in the US told WSJ that have not been requested by the government to provide location information. But the Washington Post reported on March 17 that the federal government was engaged in “active conversations” with Facebook, Google, and other technology companies to find out how to use location data from phones.