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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 10:08 PM EDT) -- Google has begun using its vast amount of location data to publish reports showcasing how people are moving around amid the coronavirus pandemic, and two Democratic senators are concerned about the privacy implications.
Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut wrote to the tech giant Tuesday to get answers on what types of data Google is using to form its reports and whom it is sharing the data with.
The senators gave Google one week to answer the half dozen queries contained in their letter, and warned the company to consider the consequences of using location data, even for a good cause like tracking the effects of various social distancing measures.
"The potential consequences of misusing or inappropriately accessing individuals' personal information are particularly serious when location data is involved," the senators said. "Access to this type of information can pose risks to both individuals' civil liberties and their physical safety. No one should fear that their phone is monitoring their every step."
More than 12,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and nearly 400,000 have fallen ill. In an effort to stem the spread, nearly every state has issued some form of social distancing order, mandating that residents shelter in place and only leave their home for essential activities.
Google unveiled its plan to start publishing the so-called COVID-19 mobility reports Friday, promising people the ability to "see how your community is moving around differently" due to the coronavirus pandemic with insights gleaned from the location data of its millions of smartphone users.
While location data could provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of shelter in place and stay at home orders and possibly help epidemiologists understand how the disease spreads, the senators are concerned that lax use of location data could result in privacy rights being trampled.
Google promises that it is using only "aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the location history setting, which is off by default," but privacy advocates remain concerned. The company has faced lawsuits in the past over its collection of location data, including allegations that it has continued to track users even after they switched off the location services option on their phones.
The senators said that while they support "innovative solutions to this public health crisis ... those solutions, however, cannot come at the expense of individuals' personal privacy."
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is holding a paper hearing on Thursday intended to solicit expert opinions on "enlisting big data in the fight against coronavirus," but Congress isn't the only one interested in how data could hurt or help people during the pandemic.
The American Civil Liberties Union will be hosting its own discussion on "the merits and limits of this technology for the current crisis," a sign that it, too, is concerned about the privacy implications of using location data to implement public health measures.
Representatives for Google and the senators did not immediately return a request for comment.
--Editing by Bruce Goldman.
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