PITTSBURG — Tech companies and the government are testing the waters of using cell phone location data to fight the spread of COVID-19 — tracking users’ movements to monitor whether they’re complying with “social distancing” requirements that people nationwide are still getting used to.
While Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook have reportedly been involved in talks with the federal government on the subject, last week a smaller company called Unacast made headlines both nationally and in Kansas with the launch of a “Social Distancing Scoreboard,” which is using tens of millions of anonymized cell phone locations to give every state and county across the country “grades” on how well its residents are doing with social distancing.
Crawford County had a “B-” grade on Thursday morning. By early Thursday afternoon that had changed to a “C” — the same grade Unacast was giving the United States as a whole on its ever-changing scoreboard.
Last week, Unacast was giving Kansas overall a “B” grade and Missouri a “C.” Both states, however, have since been downgraded — which prompted a reprimand of the public from Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman and Gov. Laura Kelly at a press conference Wednesday.
Although Kelly issued a statewide stay at home order Monday, by Wednesday, people’s movements were "starting to ratchet back up," she reportedly said. "That's exactly what we can't have happen. We are trying very hard to bend this curve, and we won't be able to do it if Kansans don't cooperate."
Not everyone is convinced, however, that tracking people through their phones is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Privacy advocates worry data firms like Unacast can be dodgy because they’re gathering locations without real consent from people,” Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey Fowler wrote last week.
“The data wouldn’t be held in some federal database,” Fowler noted, however, rather “it would be managed by industry and health officials, who could query it for research.”
Apparently that is what is going on in Kansas. While there is a publicly accessible version of Unacast’s “Social Distancing Scoreboard,” state officials apparently have had access to additional data from the company.
“It was unclear Wednesday what exact data Norman and the state had access to,” the Lawrence Journal-World reported. “The publicly available data on Unacast’s website currently has a four-day lag time, the company noted on its website, while Norman said the data he had access to updated every other day.
“The most recent daily trend data from Unacast that was available to the public Wednesday showed Kansas climbed from a D rating, based on data from March 26, to a C- rating, based on data from March 27.”
The Post reported in March that the companies and agencies involved in the monitoring efforts “are not building a government database.” One reason for that, however, may be that when it comes to phone location data, the government doesn’t need to build a new database because of the coronavirus outbreak. It already has plenty of them.
Revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs in 2013 as a result of leaks from former intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden included the existence of an NSA program called CO-TRAVELER, which “collects billions of records daily of cell phone user location information” and “covers everyone who carries a cell phone, all around the world,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“It maps the relationships of cell phone users across global mobile network cables, gathering data about who you are physically with and how often your movements intersect with other cell phone users,” the EFF noted in an article published shortly after the program’s existence was revealed.
And while the NSA’s program is perhaps the largest, the agency is not alone in collecting phone location data. Devices called IMSI-catchers (IMSI stands for international mobile subscriber identity), also known as Stingrays — an IMSI-catcher model manufactured by a company called Harris Corporation — can be used to mimic a cell tower and trick nearby phones into connecting to them, collecting their location data along with other ostensibly private information from the phones.
Agencies ranging from local police in several states (maybe not in Kansas, but in Missouri, according to the American Civil Liberties Union) to federal agencies including the FBI, DEA, and even the IRS have been revealed as users of IMSI-catchers. Cessna airplanes equipped with IMSI-catchers called “dirtboxes” have been flown from five metropolitan airports around the country and shared by Department of Justice agencies for well over a decade.
Just because the federal government has access to such potentially invasive technologies, however, doesn’t mean lower level jurisdictions necessarily can or should have the capability to tap into data generated from them. And while advocacy groups that many would consider to be on the left end of the political spectrum such as the EFF and ACLU have been among the most vocal in questioning their use, they are not the only organizations concerned about the misuse of phone tracking data.
“The wholesale, warrantless collection of cellular data raises significant privacy issues, even during a pandemic,” Samuel MacRoberts, Kansas Justice Institute (KJI) general counsel and litigation director, said in a press release following the Wednesday KDHE press conference about phone tracking in Kansas in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The KJI is a subsidiary of the Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit group described on KJI’s website as a “free-market think tank.” The KJI “strongly urges Gov. Kelly to make public the details of the tracking program as well as provide a thorough legal justification for this program that impacts the privacy of Kansas cell phone carriers,” the release noted.
“The COVID-19 pandemic does not justify warrantless data searches of Kansas residents, and it certainly does not justify the lack of transparency,” MacRoberts added. “Although the Kansas Legislature has provided broad executive powers during emergencies, they are not absolute.”