According to the World Health Organization and the CDC, social distancing is currently the most effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Congratulations, Nevadans: Your smartphone thinks you're doing a great job at social distancing. -- better than nearly every other state. We know this thanks to a company that buys all our cellphone data, aggregates it and sells it to other companies. Health officials hope the location data could help track and contain coronavirus outbreaks, which seems like a pretty good use of all that data.
Unacast, a company which aggregates and analyzes location data from various sources, released a study ranking all 50 states plus the District of Columbia on how much smartphone owners had reduced their travel.
Nevada ranked third overall, behind only the District of Columbia and Alaska, with Silver State residents reducing their average mobility by 51%. Nevada was one of 18 states to receive an A grade for reducing mobility by at least 40%.
If you have a smartphone, you're probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system. And it's revealing where Americans have - and haven't - been practicing social distancing.
Unacast collects and analyzes phone GPS location data. It uses the reduction in the total distance we travel as a rough index for whether we're staying put at home.
Efforts to track public health during the coronavirus pandemic are a reminder of the many ways phones reveal our personal lives, both as individuals and in the aggregate. Unacast's location data comes from games, shopping and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones - information the company normally analyzes for retailers and marketers.
It's part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.
It's not alone. Google also collects and shares where we go. Long before the coronavirus, the Google Maps app has included a live read of how busy popular destinations are, based on location data. Facebook's Instagram, too, lets you see other people who've recently shared updates from places.
There's no evidence that the U.S. government is using phones to enforce stay-at-home orders or track patients. But privacy is often the first civil right on the chopping block when public health and national security are at risk. Getting the balance right is hard. South Korea has used an app to track tens of thousands of quarantined people whose phone would alert authorities if they left home.
The Washington Post reported that the U.S. government is in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies about using anonymous location data to combat the coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping at safe distances from one another. The data wouldn't be held in some federal database; it would be managed by industry and health officials, who could query it for research.
It's the middle of the night. Do you know who your iPhone is talking to?
Privacy advocates worry data firms like Unacast can be dodgy because they're gathering locations without real consent from people. All of the apps that Unacast acquires location data from must let users know. We know few people read the privacy policies on apps - the fine print where they disclose the many ways they use your location, such as selling it on to data firms.
How we survive the surveillance apocalypse?
Following health experts' guidance to "flatten the curve" by limiting contact with others keeps everyone safer. But if you don't want your phone's location showing up on a social distancing map - or in the hands of marketers - carefully vet the apps you have installed or just turn off the phone's location services.