Does Google's sharing mass location data will impact the user's privacy?

Recently we reported that Google is using location data to report to health organizations to highlight how global communities are maintaining the self-isolation lockdown protocol, and which are not. This is being achieved by the data collected from millions of Android and iOS phones around the globe that use any of the Google apps and services.

Google released the COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports a few days ago for more than 130 affected countries. With the help of these reports, the movement trends can be monitored by geography, public spots like parks, public transportation stops, workplaces, grocery stores, and other recreational places that people are urged not to visit these days. These reports will also show whether the lockdown is being properly implemented or not, and if it is, then is it having any positive effect in the battle against COVID-19 or not?

It will also help to tip the health organizations of these countries about how severe the situation might get, and whether people are taking necessary precautions about it or not?

While this sounds to be an effective way to combat the disease and also keep an eye on people, it also raises a privacy concern.

How much does Google really know about all of us, and is there a probability of data misuse? Because Google has a history of changing policies about how it handles user data, so can we believe the tech giant completely?

Google has tried to clarify its stance though. The company says that the data is taken from all of the smartphones in which the location settings were enabled. As per Google, it is a user’s choice whether to show his or her location or not?

The second clarification that Google has given in this regard is that all this collected information is all anonymized and combined with everyone else's data. This is done so that the data does not include any personally identifiable information like someone’s location, contact details, contacts, or movement. Also, this data is not linked to other Google products.

These reports are published in PDF format for each country or affected region. The places are categorized systematically, and the movement around various categories of places is gauged. Once the data is obtained, it is then presented in percentages instead of giving out specific numbers of people in these places.

Google is using a differential privacy policy too to hide the personal information of the users as much as possible.

Now whether we believe Google or not, the risk of data cross-referencing is always there. Especially now, with this Coronavirus pandemic, this risk has multiplied.

The major ways that Google collects our data are through Maps, Search and Gmail. All your itinerary and test results in your email can be used through Google’s ad technology, which scans the content of these emails.

However, Android users need to be more careful because as per DigitalContentNext report, Android phones send data samples from Google's apps to its servers far more often than Apple's iPhones do.

Lastly, through Verily, the life sciences division of Alphabet, and a sibling company to Google.

Verily is making users sign in with a Google account to use its COVID-19 screening service.

This means that the Alphabet has access to our tests, and it can also acquire our test results for COVID-19 too!

US senators and lawmakers have called for an inquiry for this because this is actually a major cause of concern for most people. Despite Verily’s claims regarding the ambiguity and anonymity of people using its COVID-19 screening services, on their website, they do mention that their test results will be shared with health organizations and authorities!

On legal grounds, if Google changes its policy regarding the COVID-19 reports, it needs to ask the users permission.

The question still remains, whether Google is trustworthy or not? Right now, these reports are related to individual data, and this location tracking is about community data. But what will happen once this pandemic is over? Will Google continue tracking us all down then? Only time can answer these questions.

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