How your cellphone Wi-Fi and GPS data help to track coronavirus

We’re a little less mobile lately, but you might find yourself using your mobile phone more than ever. Whether you’re using video chat apps to stay in touch with friends or having a virtual doctor appointment, having reliable home Wi-Fi is key.

And you’re not the only one relying on your cellphone data more than usual. Since tracking COVID-19 and flattening the curve is so instrumental in predicting the coronavirus spread, many governments around the world are using another tool in their toolbox — your cellphone. 

Why track cellphone location? 

For a lot of people, cellphones are like another limb — they go everywhere with them. Some households even use their mobile device for their home internet connection. These circumstances turn our cellphone GPS data into little breadcrumbs that map out our everyday lives. 

How is the government getting your consent to use this data? “The data comes from the mobile advertising industry rather than cellphone carriers,” according to The Wall Street Journal. In other words, those third-party apps and games installed on your phone gained your consent to track your location when you downloaded them. And now, “huge troves of this advertising data are available for sale.”

While the data “is stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner,” it still gives plenty of information about people’s whereabouts, including “which retail establishments, parks and other public spaces are still drawing crowds that could risk accelerating the transmission of the virus.” Just take a look at this heat map created from cellphone data of students on spring break to see how location data predicts the spread of the coronavirus from a single Florida beach.

Mobile phone tracking privacy concerns

You’re probably wondering if you should be concerned about the government tracking your cellphone. What does this mean for your cellphone security and privacy? On the surface, the way that cellphone data is currently being used to track the virus in the U.S. is relatively innocuous. The data has no personal identifying information and cannot be tied back to a single user. 

Most privacy advocates are concerned about long-term privacy effects. “While recognizing that it may be necessary to permit some collection of our data,” privacy advocates are drawing a clear line between tracking localized data and tracking a specific person, according to Slate.

“But we should not simply think of governments’ requests for location data as a trade-off between public health and privacy.”

Knowing an individual’s every move is uniquely personal — it can identify things like where they go to school, who they associate with and their religious affiliation. The good news? The U.S. recognizes this as privileged information and, currently, law enforcement must get a warrant to obtain this type of data.

Beyond that, both GPS and Wi-Fi tracking data can be imprecise, making it impractical to track an individual’s movements, even one who has tested positive for the virus. The data just isn’t reliable enough to be of any use. For example, “while two individuals using the same Wi-Fi network are likely to be close together inside a building, the Wi-Fi data would typically not be able to determine whether they were in that important six-foot proximity range,” according to Lawfare. GPS is also vulnerable to errors, such as confusing if “you were in the same aisle in the supermarket as the ill person … as opposed to just sitting on a bench outside.”

What can you do to secure your Wi-Fi and GPS signal?

If you are concerned about your Wi-FI privacy, there are a few measures you can take to secure your cellphone and your Wi-Fi signal. 

First, make sure to secure your home Wi-Fi router, and get the 411 on how to tell if your Wi-Fi router has been hacked. Next, before venturing out, read up on how to safely use public W-Fi and Wi-Fi in your car. And of course, always create a secure password for all your online accounts. 

For GPS, you can turn off your GPS tracking in your cellphone settings and uninstall any apps that are tracking your location. However, you won’t be able to restrict data that’s previously been collected. Be aware that turning off GPS can inhibit other apps you may use, such as Waze or Google Maps. 

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