Tech giant Google has shared user location data with governments around the world, in an effort to measure how effective lockdown and shelter-in-place policies have been. The data set, which has also been publicly published, shows location information on billions of users in 131 countries.
Charts published by the company display a comparison between a period from February 16th to March 29th to a five week period earlier this year. The company focused on traffic to retail and recreational venues, parks, train and bus stations, workplaces, and grocery stores.
With this information, governments can see if people are abiding by shelter-in-place policies and compare the effectiveness of these policies to other safety measures.
This move by Google has understandably raised many privacy concerns given the distrust of location tracking software. Handing over these data to governments has enraged certain privacy watchdogs. However, the company published the meta-level data publicly for this exact reason—to avoid any ambiguity about what information they shared.
Which Countries Have Quarantined the Most? The Least?
The findings were quite intuitive. Traffic rates mostly correlated with the type of policy, the severity of the outbreak in that region, and how strict the measures were.
The countries with the largest drop in visits to retail and recreation locations were Italy and Spain. Traffic to places like restaurants, stores, and movie theaters dropped a whopping 94%, which makes sense given that these two countries have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
The smallest drop was in South Korea, with only a 19% fall-off in traffic to retail and recreation locations. That’s because it’s been the country that’s been the most successful in actually slowing the spread due to its use of widespread testing and detailed contact tracking.
Since the coronavirus is mild to asymptomatic in many people, it is important to test everyone, not just those sick enough to go to the hospital. And because the South Korean government was quick to cough up the funds needed to test everyone, their economy has actually taken the smallest hit. These data are a very compelling argument for governments to test everyone and to move quickly to do it.
Japan and Sweden, neither of which have imposed lockdown rules, saw a 25% drop in business activity while the decline in traffic for the U.S. has been just under 50% with wide swings from the average depending on where the virus is most active.
There are no data on the changes made in China and Iran, given that Google services are blocked in those regions.
Issues Regarding Privacy
Google has said that there is no way an individual could be identified through this data set, neither by the public or the government. The data points come only from those users who have agreed to Google’s “Location History” feature.
Infectious disease specialists have asked for demographic information from the data to more effectively target public service announcements. Google said it will not share the raw information, but hinted that they might be able to do an in-house demographic analysis, which it could share.
Google is not the only company that has been using its otherwise inside information to join the fight against the pandemic. Facebook has also shared data on their billions of users with private analytic groups. However, it has not publicly published what was shared, leading to more uncertainty about privacy abuses.