Source: Post-Gazette | Stuart N. Brotman | March 25, 2020

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The new normal of COVID-19 is for all of us to stay connected on as close to a 24/7 basis as possible. That means having a mobile phone handy wherever we are and wherever we go. The public health demands of tracking such critical aspects as social distancing and virus spreading through contacts has placed a greater potential need for data to be collected and shared by private internet and telecommunications companies. Such data can be invaluable to government agencies involved in public health planning and implementation during the pandemic.

Other democratic countries such as Israel already have government orders in place that require companies that provide location tracking to turn data over for public health analysis. So far, the United States has not pursued this course. Rather, it still remains in active discussions regarding why and how such data should be made available to relevant government agencies.

Even absent a government mandate, it is hard to imagine that major companies collecting this data will not fully cooperate if and when specific requests are made, with the strong justification that such information may help stem the dramatic increase of diagnosed cases and the increased number of deaths that are sure to follow.

That’s why now is the time for government and the private sector to develop clear transparency rules when these data transfers take place. Transparency in general is one of the cornerstones in gaining public confidence during this crisis. Such confidence may erode if individuals feel that our nation is becoming a surveillance state.

Location tracking data, while collected individually, only will have value here if it is compiled in the aggregate, so that trends can be mapped in determining public health recommendations and outcomes. This already has been useful in collecting cell tower pings in Kenya to predict the spread of malaria. In the U.S., there are even more precise ways to track locations based on apps and telecommunications operating systems.

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