Google Maps to alert users about COVID-19-related travel restrictions

Google to publish user location data to help govts tackle virus


Google said it will release location data from users worldwide on Friday to enable the government to evaluate the effectiveness of social alienation measures taken to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reports on users’ movements in 131 countries will be made available on a special website and will “chart movement trends over time by geography”, according to a post on one of Google’s blogs.

Trends will display “a percentage point increase or decrease in visits” to locations like parks, shops, homes and places of work, not “the absolute number of visits,” said the post, signed by Jen Fitzpatrick, who leads Google Maps, and the company’s chief health officer Karen DeSalvo.

Statistics show that in France, for example, the number of visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, museums or theme parks has fallen by 88% from normal levels.

After the announcement of the confinement measures, the local stores initially saw an increase of 40% and then a decrease of 72%.

At the same time, office use may be stronger than expected, as the decrease in the area is only 56% smaller.

“We hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Google execs said.

“This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.”

Like the detection of traffic jams or traffic measurement Google Maps, the new reports will use “aggregated, anonymised” data from users who have activated their location history.

No “personally identifiable information,” such as an individual’s location, contacts or movements, will be made available, the post said.

These reports will also use a statistical technique that adds “artificial noise” to the original data, making it more difficult to identify users.

From China to Singapore to Israel, the government has mandated electronic surveillance of citizens’ activities to limit the spread of this virus. The virus has infected more than 1 million people and killed 50,000 people worldwide.

In Europe and the United States, technology companies have started sharing “anonymous” smartphone data to better track the outbreak.

Even Germany, which likes privacy, is considering using smartphone applications to control the spread of disease.

But activists say authoritarian regimes use coronaviruses as an excuse to suppress independent speech and enhance surveillance.

In liberal democracies, others worry that extensive data collection and intrusion will continue to damage privacy and digital rights.

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