Google (GOOGL) - Get Report is tracking your movements to see if you’re going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or a neighbor’s house, or if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and staying put, and also to see if you have the coronavirus and are potentially spreading it.
Alphabet-owned Google this week released preliminary reports showing movements within communities not just in the U.S. but across the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Community Mobility Report for the U.S., as of March 29, movement to retail and recreation areas - restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and the like - had decreased by 47%.
"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," according to a blog post on the topic.
The community mobility report tracks trends in where people are, using location history from users' phones. It currently has data from 131 countries worldwide, drilling down into regions where deemed necessary such as states in the U.S. The reports review what has changed during the outbreak in terms of working from home, shelter-in-place and other policies aimed at flattening the curve.
The numbers not only reveal a startling shift in activity related to stay-at-home orders and outright lockdowns in countries and regions throughout the world, they also reveal the sheer tracking power Google has at its disposal, using location history on people’s mobile phones.
The Washington Post reported last month that Google, Facebook (FB) - Get Report and other tech companies were in discussions with the federal government over how they can help fight the novel coronavirus with location data collected from people's phones.
The data, anonymous and aggregated, would track not only people who are venturing to places they shouldn’t be venturing to but also whether they are venturing too close to one another, and breaking the unwritten rule of social distancing to curb the virus’s spread.
While potentially helpful in studying transmission trends for the virus, the technology and its use has already raised red flags among privacy experts, particularly as big tech companies are already under scrutiny over their privacy policies and the personal information they collect.
For its part, Google told the Washington Post last month that any partnership wouldn't involve sharing a person's movement or individual location, telling the Post only that “… aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against Covid-19."
Similar efforts have already been rolled out in other parts of the world, including in Israel, where government officials have approved a plan to use cell phone data to track the locations of people infected with the coronavirus and those they might have had contact with.
Meantime, a consortium of 33 industry associations, companies and other organizations has asked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to delay enforcement of the state’s consumer privacy law, which is slated to kick in this summer.
In a letter, the consortium has requested that the law, dubbed the California Consumer Privacy Act, or CCPA, be delayed until next year.