Democratic senators question Google over decision to release coronavirus location data

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Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) raised concerns on Tuesday around potential privacy violations involved in Google’s decision last week to share anonymized location data to help track movement during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The senators sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai questioning the company’s new COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which involve the publication of anonymized and aggregated location data for individuals in 131 countries and regions to show movement trends. 

Blumenthal and Markey were skeptical that the program would be able to fully ensure the privacy of user data, particularly in light of location data often revealing other personal data, such as home addresses, places of work, and religious affiliations. 

“Location data sharing carries with it myriad risks, and while we commend Google’s efforts to assist in combating the coronavirus pandemic, we caution you against steps that risk undermining your users’ privacy,” the senators wrote. 

The senators questioned Pichai around whether Google planned to share the personal data with specific governments or research groups, if Google planned to describe the data in more detail than just the country it was from, and what guidance the company had provided to health care providers on how to interpret the data. 

“Access to this type of information can pose risks to both individuals’ civil liberties and their physical safety,” the senators wrote. “No one should fear that their phone is monitoring their every step.”

The senators gave Pichai until April 14 to respond to their questions. A Google spokeswoman told The Hill that the company launched the location-sharing program in accordance with “stringent privacy protocols.”

“The public reports share insights based on aggregated, anonymized data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default,” the spokeswoman said. “As we’ve said, no personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.”

Google said in announcing the sharing of location data that it would provide “insights at the regional level” where possible and that the company made the decision to share the data following input from health providers that could be helpful.

“In the coming weeks, we will work to add additional countries and regions to ensure these reports remain helpful to public health officials across the globe looking to protect people from the spread of COVID-19,” Google officials wrote in a blog post announcing the program. 

The letter was sent on the heels of growing use of surveillance to track and stop the spread of the coronavirus in countries including China, Singapore and Israel.

The U.S. and European countries are looking into pursuing similar policies, although these have raised serious concerns around privacy and security.

-Updated to include a response from Google at 6:10 p.m.

Tags Ed Markey Edward Markey Google

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