Google Releases Community Mobility Reports Indicating Effectiveness of Social Distancing Worldwide

Jen Fitzpatrick and Karen DeSalvo of Google:

Starting today we’re publishing an early release of our COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports to provide insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic. These reports have been developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and policies

The reports use aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential. We’ll show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior. While we display a percentage point increase or decrease in visits, we do not share the absolute number of visits. To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

To make the reports, Google used location data from any account that has opted into allowing Google to store location history. The company’s services have billions of active daily users, so even if only a minority of users allowed location use, it would still create an enormous data set. Google broke down locations into six broad categories: Retail and recreation, such as malls, restaurants, and museums; grocery and pharmacy, which includes farmer’s markets and food warehouses along with supermarkets and drugstores; parks, including local, national, and state parks; transit stations; workplaces; and residential.

It’s unsurprising that Google has such a vast data trove to put together these reports, but we’re also seeing ad tech companies, anonymous outside of very specific industries, come out of the woodwork to offer their own assessments.

Much as I continue to be concerned about the privacy implications of this, I think it’s worth using our existing mass surveillance infrastructure to figure out how to resolve this pandemic. After that, let’s fix the catastrophic policies that have allowed so many shady companies to track us to such an extent without our permission.