WASHINGTON – The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.
Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who requested anonymity because the project is in its early stages.
Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details about their daily whereabouts.
Multiple sources stressed that – if they proceed – they are not building a government database. In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it. The tech giant in the past has provided this information to researchers in the form of statistics, which in the case of coronavirus, could help officials predict the next hotspot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.
“We’re encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage aggregate, anonymized data to glean key insights for covid-19 modeling efforts,” said an official with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The official said those insights might “help public health officials, researchers, and scientists improve their understanding of the spread of COVID19 and transmission of the disease.”
A task force created by tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors presented a range of ideas around disease mapping and telehealth to the White House during a private meeting Sunday. The discussions included representatives from tech giants, including Apple and Google; investors led by the New York-based firm Hangar and well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway; public-health leaders from Harvard University; and smaller telehealth startups like Ro, two sources said.
“We are still in the process of collecting ideas, recommendations, and proposed actions from task-force members, which we intend to present to the White House in the coming days,” said Josh Mendelsohn, the managing partner at Hangar, who helped organize the effort.
Many of those involved either did not respond or declined comment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to a request for comment.
Apple said late Tuesday that it has only worked on issues related to telehealth and distance learning, stressing that it doesn’t collect iPhone users’ location data.
The early, unprecedented collaboration between Washington and Silicon Valley reflects the urgent, nationwide scramble to stop a deadly malady that has shuttered businesses, skewered the stock market, sent students home from school and now threatens to overwhelm the U.S. medical system with patients in need of critical care.
Over the past week, White House officials led by Michael Kratsios, the country’s chief technology officer, have convened a series of meetings to leverage the tech expertise of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and other technology leaders. The government has encouraged social-media sites to take a more aggressive approach to thwart coronavirus conspiracy theories, The Post has reported, responding to concerns that foreign misinformation might be stoking panic about the outbreak. And the Trump administration has explored partnering with the tech industry to improve telework and telehealth offerings for millions of Americans.
The relationship hasn’t been without its hiccups: On Friday, President Donald Trump announced Google would be developing a website so Americans could learn how to get tested for coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. That differed from the initial statements from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which had indicated it planned a more limited offering targeting residents of California. Ultimately, though, Google said soon after it would unveil a website to provide information for U.S. patients nationwide.
On Monday, White House leaders, tech experts and health officials struck a more unified note, unveiling a portal for about 29,000 research papers on coronavirus. The portal allows the tech industry’s artificial-intelligence tools – which can scan and analyze data en masse – to process the papers rapidly to uncover new insights about the global malady.
“Decisive action from America’s science and technology enterprise is critical to prevent, detect, treat, and develop solutions to covid-19,” Kratsios said in a statement.
The new efforts by Washington and Silicon Valley arrived the same week that dozens of engineers, executives and epidemiologists issued an open letter, calling on companies to take a greater stand against coronavirus. Specifically, they encouraged Apple and Google to adopt “privacy preserving” features that might enable authorities to help doctors determine people who were in contact with a patient that later tested positive for coronavirus.
“Technology companies have taken important steps already, such as closing offices in affected areas or showing custom search results in place of user generated content. But we believe there is a lot more that Silicon Valley can do to assist with large scale mitigation,” they wrote.
Smartphones regularly transmit their locations to wireless carriers and often to major tech companies, including Google and Facebook, to make some of their services work. The makers of apps that deliver weather reports, hail rides or help people find a coffee shop also frequently collect location information, and some sell it to firms that mine the data for business insights and opportunities.
Privacy advocates typically look skeptically on such commercial uses of location data, calling for stricter laws governing its use. Recent news about Israel’s plans to use location data to help track the coronavirus similarly sparked intense discussions about the legal and ethical implications of deploying such data to thwart the spread of disease and get medical help to infected people.
“The balance between privacy and pandemic policy is a delicate one,” tweeted Al Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford University law school’s Center for Internet and Society, last week. “The problem here is that this is not a law school exam. Technology can save lives, but if the implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk.”
The issues are all the more sensitive for Silicon Valley because the companies faced a severe backlash in 2013, following disclosures about the role of tech company data in surveillance by the National Security Agency, made public by agency contractor Edward Snowden. Relationships between tech companies and government officials were severely strained for years after and have improved gradually.
“Privacy is the first to go when there are national security issues,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist and a journalist who covered the Snowden revelations.
In seeking to battle coronavirus, the U.S. government is not seeking to collect and maintain a database of Americans’ whereabouts, sources cautioned. Rather, U.S. officials have asked whether companies’ vast stores of geolocation data might help epidemiologists find trends, including vulnerable populations, or identify areas at risk, such as hospitals under strain, two people said.
Facebook is already working with health researchers and nonprofits in several countries to provide anonymized and aggregated statistics about people’s movements through a project called disease-prevention maps.
Facebook populates its maps with the aid of its users, who have given the company permission to collect their location – harnessed via their smartphones – while its app runs in the background. Those locations are then aggregated and anonymized by Facebook engineers, who can calculate the likelihood people in one city or town are likely to visit another area, potentially spreading the outbreak there.
The most granular data Facebook provides can locate a person to within about a third of a mile, Facebook officials say. The tech giant does not provide any data about individuals movement, aggregated or otherwise, with governments for disease tracking, the company says.
“You’re trying to predict the probability that a group of people in Prince George’s County (in suburban Maryland) might interact with a group of people from D.C.,” said Laura McGorman, who leads the project. Such a prediction could offer clues for how infections might travel.
McGorman said government officials, including those in California, are also interested in seeing whether people are practicing social distancing and whether it is an effective strategy. She said engineers had labored over the past 48 hours to help authorities with their requests.
She said the project is in the early phases because it is challenging to map real-time location data streaming in from smartphones against analog information coming in from hospitals and cities. “It is very humbling because we have one piece of the puzzle that we can offer but there are so many other inputs in understanding how disease will spread.”
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The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell contributed to this story.
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