(AFP) – Google says it will publish users’ location data around the
world from Friday to allow governments to gauge the effectiveness of
social distancing measures, brought in to stem 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.
For example, in France, visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centres,
museums or theme parks have plunged by 88 percent from their normal
levels, the data showed.
Local shops initially saw a jump of 40 percent when confinement
measures where announced, before suffering a drop of 72 percent.
Office use is possibly stronger than suspected meanwhile, as the decline
in that area is a more modest 56 percent.
“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.
The reports will also employ a statistical technique that adds “artificial
noise” to raw data, making it harder for users to be identified.
From China to Singapore to Israel, governments have ordered electronic
monitoring of their citizens’ movements in an effort to limit the spread of
the virus, which has infected more than a million people and killed over
In Europe and the United States, technology firms have begun sharing
“anonymised” smartphone data to better track the outbreak.
Even privacy-loving Germany is considering using a smartphone app to
help manage the spread of the disease.
But activists say authoritarian regimes are using the coronavirus as a
pretext to suppress independent speech and increase surveillance.
In liberal democracies, others fear widespread data harvesting and
intrusion could bring lasting harm to privacy and digital rights.