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  • Writer's pictureSarah Anderson

Big Brother Knows Who Practices Social Distancing

Before the U.S. was rocked by Coronavirus, the Federal Trade Commission recommended a collective $200M fine against T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T for alleged failure to safeguard its users’ geolocation data.

Just a month later (now), that alleged privacy violation seems long forgotten. Claiming not to use individual-specific data but rather “tens of millions of anonymous mobile phones and their interactions with each other each day” - Unacast is using cell phone data to track social distancing in the U.S. by county/parish. Before collecting and providing this information to the public, Unacast marketed “high-quality data feeds with dense location data for multiple markets globally.”

Tracking nameless/faceless individuals en masse arguably evades global privacy and data security laws, as well as those issued by individual states. And, given the current worldwide pandemic and the oversight agencies’ general willingness to relax compliance and enforcement measures, citizens across the globe may be rightfully anxious. Indeed, the Washington Post reported on March 24, 2020 that “[i]f you have a smartphone, you’re probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system[.]”

Smartphone locations show where and when you are at a location, the duration you are there, who you are with, as well as travel patterns to and from those locations. Consider this, CNN reporter Chris Cuomo announced today that he is positive for Coronavirus. If, hypothetically, he was not exercising responsible social distancing, his smart phone data could be used to determine with whom he was last in proximity, and from there, who those people met with in the following hours and days. Such individuals could be positively identified by his/her mobile communication carriers and (depending on a Governor’s willingness to exercise police powers under the 10th Amendment) then be forcibly quarantined by the State for the protection of public health.

Indeed, on March 27, 2020, the UK’s privacy watchdog stated that the “government can legally use personal data from people’s mobile phones to track and monitor behaviour if it helps fight the spread of coronavirus.” Working with UK’s various mobile phone companies for use of anonymous phone locations and usage data to create movement maps, the UK government seeks to determine whether its citizens are following social restrictions. According to The Guardian, “Governments such as China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Israel have gone much further, with active surveillance measures including the use of personal data and making infected people download a smartphone app to reveal their movements and contacts.”

Although currently useful, the geolocation data being tracked should not become a pathway to uncensored surveillance. The U.S. does not have federal data security or privacy legislation of a nature like the California Consumer Privacy Act. Accordingly, for many U.S. citizens, legal protections against further advancements in data monitoring are nearly non-existent.

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