Should Mobile Location Data Become Public?

Should We Be Using Mobile Location Data for COVID-19 Containment?

The collection and sharing of mobile location data has become a hot topic of debate. And rightly so since there have been several large-scale data breaches and serious questions of privacy. It’s no wonder why many people do not want this information publicly accessible. However, some governments have effectively been using this data for contact tracing and containment of COVID-19. In my mind, this begs the question…are there times when mobile location data should become public? And furthermore, don’t we already willingly provide this information through apps on our phones?

What Is Mobile Location Data?

When someone wants to use your mobile location data, it means they access your geolocation information from your cell phone. When you use your cell phone, it ‘pings’ your location through nearby cell towers. The Telecommunications operators (Telcos) then store this information in a secure location. Using GPS signals, Bluetooth beacons, and triangulation, anyone with access can track movement of a specific individual or an entire population in real time.

What Concerns Are There over Mobile Location Data?

There are dozens of ethical concerns about the collection and use of this data. However, the biggest points of contention for me come down to privacy and security. Collecting this type of information exposes sensitive information about you and everyone around you. It shows your exact location at any time and the routes you take every day. The data also reveals locations where you spend the most time.

While this may be unnerving to you, we freely and willing provide this information every day. Each time you click ‘OK’ when an app asks to access you location data, you give it permission to use and sell your mobile location data. Although millions of us consent to sharing this information through phone apps every day, little is known about how the information is collected or being used.

When governing bodies can freely access and use big data analytics as they see fit, it isn’t hard to imagine scenarios where it could be abused and used against its own citizens. What starts out as programs to support public health initiatives can quickly turn into more restrictive policies akin to a military state. While many governments in Southeast Asia have been effectively using apps for contact tracing and enforcing quarantine measures, how far will they go to ‘keep people safe’?

How is Mobile Location Data Used for COVID-19 Containment Measures?

During the pandemic, technology has been a critical tool in the fight to protect public health. Many governments have been using mobile location data to contain the spread of COVID-19. They conduct contact tracing and hot spot mapping to determine who is at risk. The data makes it easy to determine who attended “super-spreader” events or visited locations where there are higher chances for community transmission.

Local authorities use this data to see who has been in close proximity to confirmed cases of COVID-19. If you have been exposed, then health officials will contact you with health directives. They inform you of the exact time and location of exposure, how to monitor your health, and where the nearest hospitals and testing locations are if you have symptoms.

However, some governments have also been using this information to enforce quarantine and social distancing restrictions. They are able to track your location to ensure you are following official protocols. Some airports require you to install tracking apps on your phone when you enter the country, and deny access if you refuse to comply. In some instances, local governments even dispatch police officers or levy huge fines if you break quarantine without permission.

Their justification is that people cannot be trusted to adhere to the prescribed guidelines which puts the public at risk. However, international watchdogs worry that it could also be used to further discriminate against marginalized groups who already have limited freedoms and restricted movement.

Should We Be Using Mobile Location Data to Combat COVID-19?

Knowing both sides of the argument, that brings us back to the main question: should we allow authorities to use mobile location data to combat COVID-19?

After reviewing several case studies and personal testimonies, I would have to say yes. However, there are several asterisks following this statement. First and foremost, all health initiatives need to be in compliance with international laws. This means any restrictive measures should be “lawful, necessary, and proportionate” to the severity of the problem. It also requires both transparency and defined time limits to reduce the long-term impacts on people’s livelihoods.

Then, of course, there is the issue of security. Private citizens have a right to know how their information is being used and secured. Health authorities should specify what data it is collecting and sharing. Additionally, they should also outline how they will maintain anonymity and protect against unlawful surveillance.

For these reasons, self-reporting initiatives will likely have greater success. By creating platforms where people can disclose information, it puts more power in the hands of individuals. It also invites free and active participate in the national programs to fight COVID-19. If people feel as if they have a choice in the matter, they will be more likely to comply with public health measures.

How Can You Secure Personal Data?

However, if you disagree, what can you do to secure your personal data? Unless you are going to give up your devices that track your location, you will never be able to completely mask your personal information. But, there are steps you can take to protect your personal information from hackers, scammers, and cyber-attacks.

  1. Don’t store personally identifiable information on your cell phone. Delete passwords, social security number, credit card, and other sensitive financial information from your mobile devices.
  2. Regularly delete your browsing history and cookies. Your internet activity is constantly monitored and stored by the browser. Deleting it makes it harder to track your web activity.
  3. Clean up emails and messages that contain personal information. If it fell in the wrong hands, it could leave you vulnerable, especially if they have access to sensitive financial information. Review and delete sensitive information so it is not remotely accessible.
  4. Use secure payment methods for online purchases. Some scammers direct you to payment portals then skim your credit card number and steal your information. Using secure portals protects you from unauthorized transactions, identity theft, and cloning of your information.

In the digital age, personal privacy will continue to come into question. As more entities have access to information like your mobile location data, we have an individual responsibility to ensure our rights our not violated. Therefore, make sure you know what you’re agreeing to before you click ‘OK’ and grant access to sensitive data.

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