Skip to main content

The US government should disclose how it’s using location data to fight the coronavirus

The US government should disclose how it’s using location data to fight the coronavirus


There’s a good case for using smartphone data in the COVID-19 response, but Americans deserve an explanation

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Last week, we talked about the case for the government using location data gleaned from our smartphones to manage the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan, Israel, and England have all been using location data in various ways to understand the spread of the disease and, in some cases, enforce orders requiring citizens to isolate themselves. Any such project comes with the risk that temporary infringements on our privacy will become permanent.

I expected the debate about location data might unfold over the next few weeks as the coronavirus reaches more communities and its death toll surges. Instead, though, the United States government just went ahead and started analyzing our smartphone location data. The data is reportedly being supplied by mobile advertising companies, and is being shared with the Centers for Disease Control as well as state and local governments. Byron Tau had the scoop at the Wall Street Journal:

The aim is to create a portal for federal, state and local officials that contains geolocation data in what could be as many as 500 cities across the U.S., one of the people said, to help plan the epidemic response.

The data—which is stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner—could help officials learn how coronavirus is spreading around the country and help blunt its advance. It shows which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk accelerating the transmission of the virus, according to people familiar with the matter. In one such case, researchers found that New Yorkers were congregating in large numbers in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and handed that information over to local authorities, one person said. Warning notices have been posted at parks in New York City, but they haven’t been closed.

The story goes on to note that location data can reveal whether citizens are complying with orders to stay at home — and, by tracking the decline in foot traffic to retail stores, begin to quantify the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Anyway, this all happened rather fast. (It happened before the Washington Post could even publish its survey of tech experts about whether America should use location in this way. A slim majority voted that America should not. Sorry!) And, as Violet Blue notes at Engadget, it happened without our explicit consent. The Journal story explains that the government was able to get data from mobile ad companies rather than US telecom providers because telecoms’ use of data is highly regulated, whereas ad companies’ is not. Blue writes that other countries using location data took a more forthright approach — one that may be less likely to spook people away from getting tested, for example. Blue writes:

The countries with the best balance of privacy and virus tracing are containing it, namely South Korea and Taiwan. In fact, most of the countries showing success with coronavirus tracing have unique, current legislation specific to pandemics with provisions on data collection. The laws in Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Taiwan meet the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards. These countries are thinking about what will happen in the days after we all survive the novel coronavirus, and acknowledge that it’s a terrible idea to unbraid privacy from healthcare.

In South Korea and Taiwan, two countries who’ve done well to push back against the virus without the draconian tech-surveillance measures of China and Israel, legislation around data collection includes oversight and transparency for its citizens. “For example,” Haaretz wrote regarding South Korea’s approach, “citizens were provided with an explanation of what information was collected, for what purpose and when it would be erased.”

Hopefully the American approach will include more direct communication about the use of our location data soon.

Elsewhere, big tech companies continue to consider and develop new tools responding to the crisis. On Friday, Apple launched an app and a website to help people screen themselves for COVID-19. Jay Peters wrote it up at The Verge:

Apple today launched a website and a new app dedicated to COVID-19 screening. The resources offer an online screening tool, information about the disease, and some guidance on when to seek testing or emergency care. Apple developed the site and app in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the White House.

The screening tool asks you questions about your symptoms, recent travel, and contact you may have had with people who have had or been exposed to the virus. After completing the screening process, you’ll be taken to a page with recommended next steps that will also suggest whether you need to be tested for COVID-19. 

Apple noted that the tool should not be considered a replacement for actual medical care. But at a time when it’s nearly impossible for many people to get tested, Apple’s product should be useful in educating people about the disease’s symptoms and encourage people who are likely infected to seek medical help.

Over at TechCrunch, Jon Evans looks at a call for Apple and Google to go a step further and build operating system-specific versions of Singapore’s TraceTogether, an app that “uses Bluetooth to track nearby phones (without location tracking), keeps local logs of those contacts, and only uploads them to the Ministry of Health when the user chooses/consents, presumably after a diagnosis, so those contacts can be alerted.” Singapore has said it will make the app broadly available via open source, but some are calling for Apple and Google to roll their own versions quickly:

An open letter from “technologists, epidemiologists & medical professionals” calls on “Apple, Google, and other mobile operating system vendors” (the notion that any other vendors are remotely relevant is adorable) “to provide an opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing.”

They’re right. Android and iOS could, and should, add and roll out privacy-preserving, interoperable, TraceTogether-like functionality at the OS level (or Google Play Services level, to split fine technical hairs.) Granted, this means relying on corporate surveillance, which makes all of us feel uneasy. But at least it doesn’t mean creating a whole new surveillance infrastructure. Furthermore, Apple and Google, especially compared to cellular providers, have a strong institutional history and focus on protecting privacy and limiting the remit of their surveillance.

Apple has invested so much in defining itself as a privacy savior that it’s difficult to imagine the company building something like TraceTogether for its users, no matter how well intentioned. But I didn’t expect the federal government to start tracking our phones over the weekend, either. Even if, to those of us working from home, every day can feel eerily similar to the one before it, the world around us is changing with unsettling speed.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

⬆️Trending up: Facebook announced $25 million in grants to local news outlets harmed by the coronavirus, along with $75 million in marketing support. Details on that marketing spending are still somewhat fuzzy, but it’s still a boost for the news industry.

⬆️Trending up: Google CEO Sundar Pichai is encouraging employees to volunteer in local communities to help out during the coronavirus pandemic. The company is also increasing its employee donation-matching program to up to $10,000 a year.

⬆️Trending up: Google is rushing to cancel its plans for April Fools’ Day this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The company asked employees to ensure that any plans they have for the traditionally prank-filled holiday are put on hold lest they be considered in poor taste.

🔽Trending down: Facebook said an article from the conservative outlet The Federalist suggesting people infect themselves with coronavirus en masse does not violate the platform’s rules. Twitter and Reddit removed the article and Twitter event temporarily restricted The Federalist’s account.


Twitter deleted two tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro because they contained misinformation about COVID-19. The deletions were the first time the site has taken action against content posted by the president. Here’s Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed:

It’s not the first time that the site has used its coronavirus policy to delete a post by a sitting head of state, which Twitter provides a wider latitude than for most users. Last week, the site deleted a post by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for promoting a “natural brew” to cure COVID-19.

In the tweets, Bosolonaro posted videos of himself taken during a walking tour in Brasília on Sunday, in which the president praised the use of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus and encouraged an end to social distancing and isolation measures in the country. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine attracted attention earlier this month after a small French study indicated positive results in treating COVID-19.

Twitter also deleted a tweet from Rudy Giuliani in which he quoted conservative activist Charlie Kirk touting an anti-malaria drug as a miracle cure for the coronavirus. (Ina Fried / Axios)

The Chinese government’s propaganda machine has been spreading misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak through hacked Twitter accounts. Some of the accounts belong to people in the US. (Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li / ProPublica)

Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in New York are going on strike today. They want to call attention to an alleged lack of protections for employees who are continuing to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. Annie Palmer at CNBC has the story:

Nearly 100 workers at the facility, known as JFK8, plan to participate in the work stoppage, planned for noon ET. The employees will walk out Monday morning and “cease all operations” until their demands are heard by site leadership, said Chris Smalls, a management assistant at JFK8 and a lead organizer of the strike. 

Smalls and other workers said they’ve grown increasingly concerned about coming into work after an employee tested positive for the virus last week. An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC it was supporting the person, who is in quarantine, and asked anyone who was in contact with the worker to stay home with pay for two weeks. The facility has remained open.

Amazon is offering warehouse workers higher wages to pick and pack Whole Foods groceries amid rising demand and a worker shortage. Employees who are selected to make the switch can make $19 per hour, a $2 raise on top of the pay hike Amazon announced earlier this month. (Krystal Hu / Reuters)

Amazon admitted to unintentionally hiding some of its competitors’ faster delivery options as it delays the delivery of non-essential items due to COVID-19. The company is currently working on a fix. (Jason Del Rey / Recode)

Governments are using the coronavirus pandemic to seize new powers aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. But some of the measures go far beyond what is needed, and there likely aren’t enough safeguards in place to ensure the authority won’t be abused. (Selam Gebrekidan / The New York Times)

The New York Times is sharing coronavirus case data for every US county. It’s a powerful resource at a time when there’s no government database to look to for complete information.

Google removed the Infowars Android app from the Play Store. The move extinguished one of the last mainstream strongholds of infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The takedown came after Jones posted a video disputing the need for social distancing and shelter in places. (Lily Hay Newman / Wired)

Doctors are going viral on YouTube by posting videos about the novel coronavirus. Some aren’t even epidemiologists. Gulp. (Andrew Zaleski / OneZero)

“With me” videos on YouTube are seeing huge spikes in viewership as people stay home due to the spread of the coronavirus. The videos largely show people doing everyday tasks or crafts. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)

Facebook said it’s going to launch various features over the next couple weeks to make Facebook Live more accessible and easy to use. The features will be aimed at people who have low caps on their mobile data plans. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Facebook has experienced a sharp increase in the use of Facebook Live as people turn to social media to learn new skills. Niani Barracks, a hair stylist in Detroit, is teaching the popular virtual class called A Safe Space for Black Girls That Never Learned How to Braid. (Sandra E. Garcia / The New York Times)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, has committed $25 million to a research fund designed to help identify and develop treatments for COVID-19. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is running Facebook ads promoting chloroquine, a drug touted by Donald Trump as a possible game changer in the coronavirus fight. Scientists are urging caution about promoting the drug’s effectiveness as a treatment for COVID-19. (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)

Zoom issued an update to its iOS app to stop send certain pieces of data to Facebook. The move came after Vice found that the app sent information like when a user opened the app, their timezone, city, and device details to the social media company. (Joseph Cox / Vice)

Social distancing has resulted in a massive uptick in bartering on Nextdoor, where friends and neighbors source food and household items from one another. My friend Ryan mailed me some yeast! (Katie Reid / OneZero)

An international group of nearly 400 cybersecurity experts is trying to fight hacking related to the novel coronavirus. Their top priority is stopping hacks against medical facilities and other frontline responders to the pandemic. (Joseph Menn / Reuters)

As millions of Americans continue to lose their jobs due to the spread of the coronavirus, state websites are struggling to manage the traffic of people trying to file for unemployment. The US Department of Labor said a seasonally adjusted 3,283,000 people filed for unemployment just last week, and the situation is likely to get worse. (Paris Martineau / Wired)

A state in southern India is asking residents to download an app and send a selfie every waking hour to make sure they’re complying with the quarantine. The goal is to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed)

A viral coronavirus text message says taking ibuprofen or Advil could make COVID-19 symptoms worse — but there’s no evidence that’s actually true. The message falsely claims to be coming from a Vienna laboratory studying COVID-19. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Therapists across the US are now offering virtual sessions as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep people home. They’re doing workshops, opening their DMs up for questions, and partnering with influencers to get their messages out. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Viral challenges are keeping people occupied (and connected) amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

Here’s what a day in social isolation looks like if you livestream every activity possible. (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: 156,391

Total deaths in the US: Over 2,500

Reported cases in California: 6,346

Reported cases in New York: 66,526

Reported cases in Washington: 4,916

Data from The New York Times.


Facebook, Twitter, and Google have prepared for 2016-style threats to the next election. But the tactics have changed, and the platforms are struggling to keep up. Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Nicole Perlroth at The New York Times describe the problem:

By most accounts, the big tech companies have gotten better at stopping certain types of election meddling, such as foreign trolling operations and posts containing inaccurate voting information. But they are reluctant to referee other kinds of social media electioneering for fear of appearing to tip the scales. And their policies, often created hastily while under pressure, have proved confusing and inadequate.

Adding to the companies’ troubles is the coronavirus pandemic, which is straining their technical infrastructure, unleashing a new misinformation wave and forcing their employees to coordinate a vast election effort spanning multiple teams and government agencies from their homes.


HQ Trivia, the live game-show app that shut down in February and laid off its entire staff, is unexpectedly returning with a new show. The company has been acquired by an undisclosed investor who has been working to restart operations. (Dan Primack / Axios)

Facebook struck a deal to buy all of the augmented reality displays made by Plessey. The deal could give Facebook an edge over Apple, which recently looked into buying the British firm. (Alex Heath and Amir Efrati / The Information)

Facebook announced Jeffrey D. Zients won’t seek reelection after joining the board in 2018 as an independent director. The news marks an almost complete shake-up of the directors overseeing the social-media giant. Robert M. Kimmitt, former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and US Ambassador to Germany, will succeed Jeffrey D. Zients as lead independent director. (Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman / The Wall Street Journal)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Download a fun new Zoom background or 10 to spice up your video chats.

Watch Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan interview California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the coronavirus crisis.

Listen to The Backstreet Boys sing “I want It That Way,” social distance style.

Listen to an escapist podcast.

Listen to Joan Baez sing a song dedicated to John Prine, a friend and fellow musician who is critically ill with COVID-19.

Play Nintendo’s new Good Job!, a game that lets you chaotically smash through your office park from home.

Those good tweets

And finally...

Astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose while inventing coronavirus device

Look, we’re all trying to help respond to the COVID-19 crisis in our own way. Daniel Reardon, for example, was trying to build a necklace that sounds an alarm whenever you touch your face. Unfortunately, as Naaman Zhou recounts at the Guardian, he wound up with magnets up his nose:

“When they got the three out from the left nostril, the last one fell down my throat,” he said. “That could have been a bit of a problem if I swallowed or breathed it in, but I was thankfully able to lean forward and cough it out … Needless to say I am not going to play with the magnets any more.”

Medical records from the emergency department said that Reardon did not have difficulty breathing, and denied the presence of further magnets up his nose.

Be safe out there y’all.

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and anonymized location data: and