Location Data: What Separates COVID-19 From Previous Pandemics

In an article published by Harvard Law Today, Urs Gasser, the Executive Director at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, explains the role data collection plays in the fight against COVID-19. Specifically, Gasser explains the importance of “location data,” and he articulates how public health officials and epidemiologists use such data in an attempt to better understand the virus and track how the virus spreads (also known as “contact tracing”).

Location data can be collected by epidemiologists and public health officials in a number of different ways. Gasser explains that location data can be collected through analyzing digital devices, surveillance cameras, cellphone towers, Bluetooth connections, smart thermometers, and even applications on our smart phones. While the collection of data may seem necessary in order to protect the health and safety of individuals, the collection, sharing, and analyzing of such data may blur the lines to a variety of ethical issues and considerations. How should our health experts balance a person’s own individual privacy concerns with the broader health concerns of the general public? What steps and safeguards can individuals and businesses take to secure their data during the COVID-19 pandemic? While these are complex, fact-sensitive questions, understanding how COVID-19 may impact data-driven privacy rights over the next few months is a concept with which we must become familiar.

Gasser then compares the glaring differences between European laws and United States laws as it relates to data privacy. The former has a robust legal and regulatory framework for maximizing a person’s personal data privacy, while the latter leaves open “massive privacy gaps” and only provides limited privacy protections for individuals. Gasser even goes so far as to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved the need for “comprehensive federal privacy legislation.”

A case study of location data can be seen through Apple’s use of “mobility data.” In an article that was recently published, Apple announced that it is making mobility data available to aid COVID-19 efforts. Apple recognized that mobility data could help public health authorities and epidemiologists track the movement of people, whether it is by car, public transit, or even walking. The article quickly points out, however, that the Maps application “does not associate mobility data with a User’s Apple ID.” Therefore, a person’s privacy is substantially protected even while using the application, and even though their mobility data is being collected and used by local governments and public health experts.

Consumer data, and specifically location data, will continue to play an integral part in the fight against COVID-19. Understanding the statutory, regulatory, and/or contractual restrictions on data collection and processing is important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps even more importantly, it is critical to know the risks associated with data collection and processing in an ever-increasing digital world.