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Google will release maps data ‘mobility reports’ to show people’s movements in coronavirus pandemic

April 3, 2020, 9:19 AM UTC

Google is releasing new data about how the coronavirus pandemic has cut down on foot traffic to transit centers, retail stores and public parks in more than 130 countries.

The “mobility reports” will be posted publicly online. They come in response to requests from public health officials who want more data on how people are moving around cities to better combat the spread of Covid-19, the Alphabet Inc. unit said in a blog post. Each report will show how traffic to certain categories of places, such as parks and transportation hubs, has declined in the last month. The information won’t show individual places or people.

Google arguably has the most accurate and granular data about people’s location of any organization, public or private. More than a billion people worldwide use the company’s Maps app to navigate places they live and travel to, giving Google real-time insight into how people move around their environments. With Covid-19 infecting more than a million people and killing tens of thousands, governments are looking for location information to help them curb the disease and enforce lockdown orders.

At the same time, privacy advocates argue the crisis will give authorities unprecedented access to personal information that could be used to surveil and oppress populations long after the virus is stopped. Google said the mobility reports don’t impinge on privacy because they only use data from people who have agreed to share their location with the company, and the information can’t be tied to individual accounts.

“Knowing the general pattern of how a community moves can play a critical role in responding to the novel coronavirus and preventing future pandemics,” said Sara Cody, health officer and director for Santa Clara County’s public health department. “This information can help us understand how seriously people are taking the shelter at home order and what additional steps might be needed to slow the spread.”

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