Google Monitors If You’re Staying Home
The organization published “mobility studies” showing how people in your region are distancing themselves from society. If there has ever been a doubt about how much knowledge Google has about you, let this sink in— the company has just published county-level data about just how our travel habits have changed over the last few weeks. Most of us have a sense of the reality that we are always being watched, particularly when it comes to what we’re doing online, but some of us might be shocked by this data.
This is no secret that advertising sites such as Google and Facebook collect personal data. This is what Google calls the latest studies documenting shifts in travel habits due to social distance across six categories, including Shopping & Leisure, Supermarket & Pharmacy, Parks, Transit Stations, Offices, and Residential. You may display reports for the whole of the United States, by state, or even by region. Many countries have reports available where data is available.
The reports are coming from people who voluntarily have turned on the “place history” feature, according to the company. The company says in a blog post published Friday that “insights are generated in these reports with aggregated, anonymized data sets from users who have switched on the default location history setting.”
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the app that records your Google Maps location and saves a map from where you’re driving and visiting. I’ve suggested that you turn this feature off, but I believe— at least based on this collection of data— that most people are not aware of it in the first place.
And so, Google knows a lot. When you run to the shop, they know. Google knows where you are going, and how far you are moving to get there. It knows where your neighbor is working and whether they are still meeting the rules of the government. Google claims the data it collects is done using what is known as differential privacy — which applies random noise to each collection of data because it can’t be detected or linked to any person.
But, if Google can break down the data by county, why wouldn’t they break it down by household? Despite the fact that the firm claims it only gathers aggregate location data, it obviously knows when you are at home and when you leave home. Yet it’s also worth considering if we’re really okay with the fact that Google knows so much about us, or more specifically, if we want them to share the data with the government.
Here’s the challenge: There is certainly value in public health officials getting data, at least in general terms, on how a group practices social distance. This is an significant piece of information in evaluating the impact these actions have onCovid-19’s spread. In this case the data collected is public (meaning they don’t just share it with the government), so it’s definitely useful. It’s also very interesting in that it reveals how much the government really relies on the tech industry to fight against a pandemic such as COVID-19.