Data has become extremely important during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in tracking cases around the globe. Now Google has released a statement alerting that information it’s been gathering from users will be released to the public to assist in the fight against the coronavirus via its Google Mobility Report. Specifically, data about people’s movements across locations in 131 countries and regions.
Today, Google published its first “Community Mobility Report” along with this message: “As global communities respond to COVID-19, we’ve heard from public health officials that the same type of aggregated, anonymized insights we use in products such as Google Maps could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19.”
The Google blog continued, “These Community Mobility Reports aim to provide insights into what has changed in response to policies aimed at combating COVID-19. The reports chart movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.”
The reports are available to the public on Google’s Community Mobility Reports website. Log in today and you’ll be able to check out information from various destinations from the past two to three days. Google plans to bring more countries online as it continues to update its information.
Should you be worried about your personal information being made public? Not according to the site, which reassures, “No personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.” This is unlike China, which has used identifiable information to track people who have contracted the coronavirus.
Still nervous? It is possible to turn this Google feature off on your devices. Per the Google Community Mobility Reports’ site: “Insights in these reports are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default. People who have Location History turned on can choose to turn it off at any time from their Google Account and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline.”
Google’s Location History page provides detailed information about how to turn off this function, and answers questions about the feature, such as diagnostics.
Mark Skilton, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Innovation Network at Warwick Business School in the UK, told CNN that this move “raises a key conflict between the need for mass surveillance to effectively combat the spread of coronavirus and the issues of confidentiality, privacy, and consent concerning any data obtained.”
Skilton told CNN, “Covid-19 is an emergency on such a huge scale that, if anonymity is managed appropriately, internet giants and social media platforms could play a responsible part in helping to build collective crowd intelligence for social good, rather than profit.”
Google seems to be above-board with its intentions, stating, “this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. Similarly, 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. 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.”