Using your location data to track COVID-19? It may be happening

Good morning! At 9am Pacific Time (or about 4 hours after this newsletter goes out) Sony will take the wraps off the PlayStation 5’s system architecture in a livestream on Much like Xbox did this week.

The Washington Post had one of the first solid pieces of information on what many have been talking about: using location data from smartphones to slow down and track the spread of COVID-19:
  • The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.
  • Apps have been used in South Korea and China to combat the disease with varying success, while Israel is doing the same right now via the Shin Bet. These are regimes not known for citizen privacy, to put in mildly.
  • In South Korea, emergency virus text messages alerts have included embarrassing revelations about infected people’s private lives: “A woman in her 60s has just tested positive,” reads a typical text, “Click on the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalised,” it adds.” (The Guardian).
  • The Washington Post notes: “Multiple sources stressed that — if they proceed — they are not building a government database.”
  • Yet, the talk is that the likes of Facebook and Google (and many more) will be giving the government location data from basically everyone.
  • Google said: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” spokesman Johnny Luu said in a statement, stressing any such partnership “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.
Concerns, we’ve got a few:
  • The EFF has already been thinking about this, releasing a paper on March 10 titled “Protecting Civil Liberties During a Public Health Crisis”, noting “Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate,” any data used must expire, the process must be transparent, and more.
  • Many commentators stressed the invasion of rights, while others pointed to the fact that HIPAA wouldn’t allow this.
  • And while collected data would reportedly be anonymized and aggregated, per three sources, The New York Times has previously shown that people’s identities can be rapidly tied to anonymous smartphone tracking data.
  • That doesn’t mean the idea should be completely off the table according to at least one EFF fellow, such as the attempt made by FluPhone back in 2011 (which failed when just 1% of people in the target area installed the app).
  • Nothing about this has been mentioned in wider Europe so far, where COVID-19 has been more viral for want of a better word, but where privacy data is more fiercely guarded.

Round Up:

📌 Your phone’s location data could soon be used to track coronavirus spread (Android Authority).
1️⃣ OnePlus reveals new branding, but can you tell the difference? (Android Authority).
🗣 Google Translate debuts Transcribe, letting users transcribe conversations in real-time across eight languages - here’s how it works - Android now, iOS later (Android Authority).
💻 Tips for the Mac user newly working from home (Macworld). Applies to PC users, in part.
🔧 Tesla told to shut down ‘non-essential’ California factory to help fight the coronavirus (CNBC).
💸 Facebook’s $1,000 coronavirus bonus for employees doesn’t apply to contractors (The Intercept).
🤳 US waives potential health privacy penalties during coronavirus crisis: Doctors can use FaceTime or Facebook Messenger to call patients without breaching HIPAA (CNET).
😷 Why N95 masks are hard to make: “currently, of the 200 million masks China makes a day, only 600,000 are N95 standard masks, used by medical personnel.” (NPR).
😎 'Half-Life: Alyx' will launch on Monday at 1 PM ET (Engadget).
🔫 Doom Eternal (singleplayer) reviews are out: One of the best shooters in ages (Polygon), “Doom Eternal is one of the best first-person shooter campaigns I’ve played in years” (IGN), a masterful twitch shooter symphony with one flaw (Ars Technica). Multiplayer starts March 20, and reviews will be updated after that.
🔊 Sonos will release a new app and operating system for its speakers in June (The Verge).
🚀 Rocket Lab gets NASA certification for official smallsat launches (TechCrunch).
🧩 Pancakes, euphoria, and a robot parade: Inside MIT's grueling puzzle competition (Popular Mechanics). (Not puzzles with pieces, but problems and riddles, just to be clear.)
🐼 The best animal livestreams to watch while you're social distancing (Mashable).
🤦‍♂️ Major book publisher abandons terrible plan to keep new ebooks out of libraries (Gizmodo).
🚶‍♂️ Try Peloton's exercise app free for 90 days during your COVID-19 quarantine (
📚 George R. R. Martin writing ‘Winds of Winter’ under coronavirus lockdown (CNET).
💰 “What expensive purchase have you made that has paid for itself many times over because you saved money in the long run?” (r/askreddit).