Your smartphone will rat you out for not social distancing

So how’s that whole social distancing thing working out for you? Many who have never worked from home before or who have lost their jobs are probably clawing at the walls by now and the temptation to go out and get together with friends must be growing by the day. That’s probably a bad idea, particularly if you’re in an area with a lot of people who have tested positive for the virus, but now there’s another reason to be cautious. If you happen to have an iPhone, we recently learned that your own phone is checking to see if you’re staying a safe distance away from other people with similar devices. And if you’re not, your digital guardian angel will probably tell on you. (WaPo)

On Tuesday, a company called Unacast that collects and analyzes phone GPS location data launched a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” that grades, county by county, which residents are changing behavior at the urging of health officials. It uses the reduction in the total distance we travel as a rough index for whether we’re staying put at home.

Comparing the nation’s mass movements from March 20 to an average Friday, Washington, D.C., gets an A, while Wyoming as a whole earns an F.

How do they know that? 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, real estate firms and marketers. It’s part of a shadowy world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea is going on.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is creepy. I think we all knew that our phones were listening and recording all sorts of data about us unless we’d taken extreme precautions in terms of setting preferences carefully and not installing certain applications. And even then the manufacturers have left some back-doors in the system allowing them to peek at your activities.

But monitoring social distancing at a time when government executives are exercising unprecedented authoritarian power all across the country is pretty disturbing. Keep in mind that Unacast isn’t just looking at averages or general trends. In order for the data to be useful to their customers, they have to know the specifics of individual users’ travel habits for every phone they can tap into. And if that data exists somewhere, it’s not beyond the reach of the government, particularly at this moment in history.

And it’s not just the government, by the way. There are any number of spy applications out there that can allow you to track the location of somebody else’s phone without their knowing it and all you need to know is their phone number. But we’re not just talking about hackers here. If, like me, you’ve largely fallen into the black hole of the Googleplex, the Google Timeline feature actively records everyplace you go, 24/7, along with whether it believes you were walking, driving or flying. And during a state of emergency, there’s probably little that would stop the government if they demanded that Google give up the goods on you. (You can shut Google Timeline off if you want to, but it’s not easy. And some tech geeks believe that’s it’s not really shut off even if you do all of that. It just stops telling you about it.)

Getting back to the original issue under debate, is there really anything dangerous about this system of grading how well people are adhering to social distancing orders? Well… no. At least not yet. But what if one of the more authoritarian governors is unhappy with the low social distancing score their state receives and the death toll is rising? Be honest. In the current environment, would you really find it inconceivable that the state government could demand the tracking data and then send officials around to have a chat with you about your mobile lifestyle? I certainly couldn’t rule it out.

But what’s the alternative. You could just smash your phone with a hammer and cancel your account I suppose. But then how would you learn about stories like this?