Skip to main content

How location data could play a role in managing the coronavirus crisis

How location data could play a role in managing the coronavirus crisis


From electronic fences in Taiwan to mobile alerts in Israel, countries are finding creative ways to monitor the outbreak

Share this story

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

Illustrator by Alex Castro / The Verge

Last week, as coronavirus marched around the world, a growing number of governments began to explore the use of our cellphone data to monitor the outbreak. Using location data, Israel sent alerts to citizens believed to have been exposed to the virus ordering them to self-quarantine. In England, authorities analyzed anonymized data from telecom provider O2 to determine the extent to which the populace had implemented social distancing. And in the United States, Google discussed sharing location data with health authorities for similar purposes.

In the days since, we’ve learned more about how location data has been deployed in the fight against COVID-19. Perhaps the most dramatic example to date is in Taiwan, where authorities have deployed an “electronic fence” around quarantined households — alerting police if citizens under quarantine leave the home or even turn off their phones. Here’s Yimou Lee in Reuters:

Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes. Officials also call twice a day to ensure people don’t avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

Privacy concerns have limited the use of location data for anti-coronavirus efforts in countries such as the United States. But the system has drawn few complaints in Taiwan, which has reported only reported 108 cases of the virus, compared with more than 80,900 in neighboring China.

Among the system’s fans is Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, who notes that by implementing what Americans might typically think of as dystopian surveillance measures, Taiwanese citizens currently enjoy more freedoms than many Americans:

Life here is normal. Kids are in school, restaurants are open, the grocery stores are well-stocked. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the rather shocking assertions of government authority and surveillance that make this possible, all of which I would have decried a few months ago, feels pretty liberating even as it is troubling. We need to talk about this!

Of course, the fear is that by enabling such surveillance during a crisis, you will forever ratchet down the amount of liberty Americans enjoy during normal times. Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun explored this possibility in the New York Times in a piece on how different countries are using location data:

“We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan.

As an example, he pointed to a law enacted by New York State this month that gives Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unlimited authority to rule by executive order during state crises like pandemics and hurricanes. The law allows him to issue emergency response directives that could overrule any local regulations.

And yet in the moment, I suspect many Americans would take emergency responsive directives from Cuomo over those from the president, who has (astonishingly) called for isolated Americans to return to work by Easter and continued today to make misleading comparisons between COVID-19 and the much less dangerous seasonal flu.

Increasingly, calls for diminished civil liberties to confront the crisis are coming from unexpected places. Maciej Cegłowski, the developer behind bookmarking site Pinboard and, in his own words, “a privacy activist who has been riding a variety of high horses about the dangers of permanent, ubiquitous data collection since 2012,” is one that caught my attention.

Ceglowski is a mordantly funny writer and a pointed critic of Big Tech data collection. (In one of my favorite of his pieces, he compares the long-term storage of user data favored by technology companies to toxic waste.) In a new piece on Monday, he argued for an Israeli-style alert system that uses mobile location data to enable contact tracing and order those likely exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine. Ceglowski writes:

Of course, all of this would come at an enormous cost to our privacy. This is usually the point in an essay where I’d break out the old Ben Franklin quote: “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”

But this proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn’t already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

He adds that this system might be better conceived as a public-private partnership, and argues that any such use of our data be limited to the current emergency. “I continue to believe that living in a surveillance society is incompatible in the long term with liberty,” Ceglowski writes. “But a prerequisite of liberty is physical safety. If temporarily conscripting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it, and make full use of it.”

In the meantime, surveillance capitalism continues to do its thing. In the Washington Post, Geoffrey Fowler rounds up a variety of existing corporate efforts to quantify our social distancing routines. Something called Unacast, for example, has posted a “social distancing scoreboard” that awards states and counties letter grades based on the amount by which citizens have decreased their travel compared to normal levels. This is not, strictly speaking, what social distancing means — you don’t have to travel far to get within 6 feet of someone and infect them — but it’s ... something. Anyway, how did they get this data? Fowler writes:

Efforts to track public health during the coronavirus pandemic are a reminder of the many ways phones reveal our personal lives, both as individuals and in the aggregate. Unacast’s location data comes from games, shopping and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones — information the company normally analyzes for retailers, real estate firms and marketers. It’s part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.

Honestly, most of these corporate efforts have a grasping-at-straws feel to them. The real technology we need to solve the crisis is the kind you find in scaled-up testing, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. And any technology solutions have to be accompanied by strong leadership from the federal government — the kind that has been in terrifyingly short supply lately.

Still, I’m increasingly persuaded that location data could be part of a solution to emerge from the pandemic. I will be interested to see whether, in the weeks to follow, the tech giants come to agree.

The Ratio

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

⬆️Trending up: Twitter is donating $1 million to journalism nonprofits to support newsrooms covering the novel coronavirus. This is great to see.

⬇️ Trending down: Senior Chinese government officials are spreading disinformation about the origins of the novel coronavirus on Twitter. The company said the comments don’t violate its terms of service, which gives wide latitude to statements from government officials.


India’s government has ordered its more than 1.3 billion citizens to remain on lockdown for three weeks in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. No one will be allowed to leave their homes to socialize or work, except those doing essential services. (Pranav Dixit and Nishita Jha / BuzzFeed)

India launched a WhatsApp chatbot to help spread awareness about the novel coronavirus. Now, Indian citizens can text a bot — called MyGov Corona Helpdesk — to get instant answers to their coronavirus questions. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)

More people are using Facebook products to connect with loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic. But the crisis is diminishing the company’s core revenue driver: advertising. (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)

It’s time to finally buy a Facebook Portal, argues the most vocal fan of the Facebook Portal. The gadget — which has sparked understandable privacy concerns — can make a lot of sense during a quarantine. (Katie Notopoulos / BuzzFeed)

Coronavirus has revived Facebook as a news powerhouse. More than half of all news consumption on Facebook in the United States is about the novel coronavirus, and traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50 percent last week from the week before. (At Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton argues that Facebook is just riding the same surge of coronavirus interest that every other media company is.) (Kevin Roose and Gabriel J.X. Dance / The New York Times)

Instagram launched a new feature called Co-Watching to let you browse posts with your friends over in-app video chat. The feature is meant to help promote social distancing. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performed in a Facebook Live concert Monday night that drew so many fans it crashed the site multiple times. The country couple drew 3.4 million viewers. (Marianne Garvey / CNN)

Apple is expecting to start re-opening its retail stores in the first half of April. This might be too optimistic? Elsewhere, the company has extended remote work abilities for many employees through at least April 5th. (Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)

Amazon is prioritizing Prime members as it struggles to meet customer demand. Non-Prime members trying to get nonessential items could see longer delays. Seems like the sort of thing Amazon ought to address in a regular briefing about its service, no? (Jay Greene / The Washington Post)

Instacart is looking to hire 300,000 more workers to meet rising demand for grocery deliveries as millions of people are urged to stay home to limit the spread of coronavirus (Sara Ashley O’Brien / CNN)

Twitter is withdrawing its revenue and operating income guidance for the first quarter of 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19. The company expects Q1 revenue to be down slightly on a year-over-year basis. I expect we’ll see a lot more of these advisories in the coming weeks.

Hackers have taken over a wave of Twitter accounts to aggressively advertise a website that claims to be selling face masks and toilet paper during the coronavirus pandemic. (Joseph Cox / Vice)

On behalf of researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Google started surveying people about whether or not they have flu-like symptoms. Researchers are using the information to help forecast the spread of coronavirus infections. (Paresh Dave / Reuters)

Google struck a deal with Kenya to use its Loon balloons to broadcast high-speed internet to the country from the sky. (Bloomberg Law)

YouTube announced it will reduce streaming quality for users around the world. The decision comes just one week after the company announced it was reducing streaming quality for users in Europe to help lessen broadband strain as more people stay home to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)

Sony will slow down PlayStation game downloads in Europe to help preserve overall internet speeds. The change won’t materially affect multiplayer games, Sony said. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

Snapchat’s location-sharing app, Zenly, is turning shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 outbreak into a game. The app launched a Stay At Home challenge that shows a leaderboard of which friends have spent the most time in their homes over the last three days. Love it. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)

Hundreds of e-commerce sites are popping up to sell virus-fighting products. Over the past two months, Shopify has registered nearly 500 sites with names including “corona” or “covid.” Many are being shut down for making exaggerated claims. (Michael H. Keller and Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

Medium — an open blogging platform — is rolling out new content guidelines to cope with COVID-19. These include giving the company license to take down posts which could potentially put readers’ health at risk. Good! (Medium)

VidCon, an annual gathering of social media influencers and content creators, has been canceled this year in the US due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. The show was scheduled for June 17th through the 20th in Anaheim, California. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the United States: 44,183

Total deaths in the United States: 544

Cases reported in California: 2,494*

Cases reported in Washington: 2,221

Cases reported in New York: 21,689

Information from the CDC. California data from the Los Angeles Times.


Advocacy groups are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to subsidize data plans for customers of Lifeline, a federal phone and internet service for low-income Americans. They’re arguing that limited connectivity now poses a health risk. Here are Issie Lapowsky and Andrea Peterson from Protocol:

“If you didn’t have internet, would you really stay in your house?” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “I think most people, if they’re being honest, would not.”

The FCC already took some action related to the Lifeline program last week, when it waived recertification requirements for people already enrolled in the program for 60 days. A long list of providers have, meanwhile, pledged that for a 60-day period, they will waive late fees and won’t terminate service to people and businesses that can’t pay their bills because of coronavirus-related disruptions. FCC chairman Ajit Pai recently told Protocol that more changes could be on the horizon and that he is already pushing the private sector to extend their low-income offerings.


Executives at large US corporations sold a total of roughly $9.2 billion in shares of their own companies between the start of February and the end of last week. The move allowed them to avoid potential losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s Susan Pulliam, Coulter Jones and Andrea Fuller at The Wall Street Journal:

By far the largest executive seller was Amazon Chief Executive Jeffrey Bezos, who sold a total of $3.4 billion in Amazon shares in the first week of February, shortly before the stock market peaked, allowing him to avoid paper losses of roughly $317 million if he had held the stock through March 20, according to the Journal analysis.

The sales represented roughly 3% of Mr. Bezos’s Amazon holdings, according to the most recently available regulatory filings. He sold almost as much stock during the first week in February as he sold during the previous 12 months.

Facebook is looking to buy a multibillion-dollar stake in Reliance Jio, whose cut-price mobile internet service has attracted 370 million Indians in just three years. If it moves forward, the deal would give Facebook a key foothold in the Indian market. (Anjli Raval, Tim Bradshaw and Benjamin Parkin / Financial Times)

Reddit rolled out a new post type called polls, which lets you ask questions and vote on pretty much anything. Polls can offer up to six answers, be kept open for up to a week, and subreddit moderators can turn them off if desired. (Jon Porter / The Verge)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Amazon is making dozens of kids’ shows on Prime completely free, including Arthur and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Browse this satirical list of Slack channels for quarantined families.

Look at all these famous places that don’t have any people in them right now.

Watch all episodes of Star Trek: Picard, which have been made free to everyone.

Watch every previous Wrestlemania for free on the WWE Network. (My personal choice, even though I am a paid subscriber.)

Explore these free lesson plans for your kids in Minecraft. “Visit the International Space Station, tour landmarks in the Nation’s Capital, learn to code with a robot, explore marine biology and explore 3-D fractals,” writes Mike Snider in USA Today.

Start a podcast with up to four other people using new features in Spotify’s Anchor app.

Those good tweets

Talk to us

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