Google is leveraging its vast location-tracking powers to provide insights into how people are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic around the world.
People who have opted in to using the company’s Location History feature will have their data rolled up into anonymized reports that detail how areas are responding to the outbreak, the company announced in a blog post on Friday. You can see, for example, that as of March 29, traffic to retail and recreation spots has plummeted by 62% in New York state — no doubt in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders to stay at home and close non-essential businesses. Arkansas, which has no formal shelter in place order for its residents, has seen that same category dip by 29%.
Location History is an interesting part of Google’s arsenal. Users have to enable it themselves along with a Location Reporting setting, after which the company will receive feedback about your activities. I have the feature enabled on my personal account, and I can see a list of restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and shops I went to a few weeks ago, in the Before Times: Google automatically tracks my iPhone, no “checking in” required.
Why opt in? My personal justification is pretty dumb: I like using my history as a kind of automated diary. I can scroll through the “Timeline” and remember happier times, similar to how some people use their Instagram feeds. The feature also promises a number of conveniences. Google uses its aggregate data to fill out the “Popular Times” feature you may have seen in your search queries (“huh, guess the bar gets packed at 8 — let’s stop in for happy hour instead”), and it can notify you if traffic is bad before you start your morning commute, to name a couple notable examples.
Oh, and yeah, Google uses the feature to serve ads and make “recommendations” to users. Google’s location data has also been used as a “dragnet” for law enforcement. A memorable NBC News story from last month detailed how an innocent man was implicated in a burglary for simply riding his bike past the scene of the crime.
Viewed from this angle, the coronavirus reports might seem less like a public good and more like a positive branding opportunity for the data-collection giant, which has previously stumbled on its terms for the Location History feature. In 2018, the Associated Press reported that Google continued to store location data after the setting was disabled — Google revised its Location History policy shortly thereafter. (A major takeaway: Google actually collects some location data even outside of the Location History function — so double-check those settings if you’re concerned.) CEO Sundar Pichai would later address questions about data collection in a congressional hearing.
Still, it’s easy to imagine the potential upsides here. If Google shows that people are starting to leave residential areas in the days to come, officials might take it as a signal to remind folks about quarantine orders. Keep in mind that Google is also far from alone in using its powers to provide services related to the outbreak, and efforts from some other companies have edged a bit closer to Big Brother dystopia. (Tracking mobile devices to shame spring breakers who aren’t social distancing? Why not! After all, it was a distant four months ago when the New York Times showed us exactly how individuals could be targeted by this technology.)
You can learn more about your Location History settings here.