Millions of smartphone users are being tracked to see if they have been obeying social distancing protocol — and their localities are being graded for it.
According to The Washington Post, a location data company called Unacast launched a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” on Tuesday that analyzes GPS data from smartphones to determine how well users are following the recommendations of health officials by staying home, working remotely and avoiding unnecessary travel.
Each county in every state is given a letter grade based on the degree to which residents have reduced the distance they travel every day.
Keeping the number of reported coronavirus cases and mandates of each state in mind, the scoreboard rates how much residents traveled on a specific day compared to how much average travel there was in that area on that day of the week before the coronavirus hit the United States.
States and jurisdictions where residents have decreased their travel per day by over 40 percent, such as Washington, D.C, receive an A. States that have decreased the distance they travel per day by less than 10 percent receive an F. So far, Wyoming is the only state with a failing grade.
In addition to Washington, Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island were in the top five jurisdictions with the biggest reduction in travel and A grades. In addition to Wyoming, the five worst states for changes in travel patterns were Oregon (graded C), New Mexico (C), Idaho (D), and Montana (D).
The United States as a whole has been awarded a B for a 40 percent decrease in average distance traveled overall.
These systems, which have not been reviewed by health authorities, cannot pick up the distance between smartphone users to determine whether people are staying six feet apart.
However, as Unacast CEO Thomas Walle wrote in a blog post on the company’s website, the company is looking to add changes and layers to its scoring process by considering the number of encounters in a given area and any changes in the locations visited.
With COVID-19 disrupting daily life around the world our data scientists wanted to provide greater visibility on the social distancing efforts in place across the US. In response, we are launching our Social Distancing Scoreboard: https://t.co/ATfIxTZwhm #locationdata #geospatial pic.twitter.com/ezHyadauJ5
— Unacast (@Unacast) March 24, 2020
Unacast is able to acquire this data through trackers in apps that millions of Americans have downloaded on their phones, which the company usually interprets for travel and tourism companies, real estate companies, retailers and marketers, according to The Washington Post.
But Unacast hasn’t been the only company tracking and sharing what we do for coronavirus-related purposes, The Post reported. Researchers from companies called LogoGrab and Ghost Data collaborated on Monday used location data and visual analysis tools on 504,592 public Instagram stories to find out where Instagram users in Italy were flouting quarantine orders.
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Perhaps even more concerning, the federal government has also expressed interest in this kind of surveillance.
On March 17, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. government was communicating with Facebook, Google and other Big Tech companies about using anonymous, aggregated location data to monitor if smartphone users are following social distance protocol.
However, there is no evidence that the government is using location data to track patients or enforce stay-at-home orders as South Korea did, according to The Post.
Nevertheless, Walle told The Post he hopes the coronavirus map systems will help measure whether stay-at-home orders are effective overall.
“We can start to see and learn what states are getting this right,” he said. “Over weeks now, we can identify what are the states and counties that are putting measures in place, and see if the number of cases stabilizes or drops.”
Walle told The Post the company is following general data protection regulations and California Consumer Privacy Act guidelines, and that no individual person, household or device will be identified.
He said all of the apps that Unacast collects location data from must notify the users, though he declined to list any specific apps that do so. But such disclosures, especially those that state your location data is being sold to firms, are not commonly read.
But don’t worry — there are ways that experts suggest you can prevent apps from tracking you. The Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler has written numerous articles with tutorials of how you can change your privacy settings and turn off location access on your apps.
While social distancing is a vitally important tool for keeping yourself and America safe, there are ways that you can keep from being watched and graded for doing so by corporate and even federal eyes.
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