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If you’ve opted into Google’s location tracking feature, your whereabouts are now being fed into a tool to track whether people are staying home during the coronavirus pandemic.  

On Friday, Google released the tool to help governments and public health authorities measure the effectiveness of social distancing rules and quarantine orders across 131 countries and regions. It’s public and accessible to anyone on a new website called COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports. 

The tool collects location data from people’s smartphones, which can reveal what you’re doing throughout the day as well as where you live. So Google will not provide an online map showing everyone’s movements. Instead, the company is offering line graphs, showing the increase or decrease in foot traffic flowing to various segments, including retail shops, groceries, and residential homes. 

The data is taken from an existing feature in Google Maps, which can show you how busy your favorite restaurant is during the day. The company determines this by processing everyone’s anonymized and aggregated location data to figure out when foot traffic to the restaurant is high or low. 

“We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” Google executives Jen Fitzpatrick and Karen DeSalvo wrote in a blog post today. 

Gif of the tool in action

The new tool will offer mobility data on different countries, US states, and US counties for two to three days prior, and compare the stats to a baseline taken before the pandemic started. Viewers can then see how foot traffic to various places has changed during the ongoing crisis.  

“While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits. To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point,” the Google executives added. 

Graph for Los Angeles County

The company hopes the data will help public health authorities make the right decisions in responding to the coronavirus pandemic as the illness continues to spread across the US. “For example, 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,” the executives said. 

To contain the pandemic, many governments are increasingly tapping location data from smartphones to find out who coronavirus carriers have come into contact with. However, the strategy has raised alarm bells with privacy advocates over how the same technologies could be abused for other surveillance purposes. 

According to The Washington Post, the US government has also engaged in talks with Google, Facebook, and other technology companies about using the location data to help contain the coronavirus. However, legal issues and privacy concerns appear to be stalling the effort. 

Google’s approach tries to side-step potential ethical ramifications by not offering up location data on individual users. Still, if you’re creeped out by the data collection, you can opt out by shutting down the location history feature in Google. “Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline,” the company added. 

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