Apple is the latest tech company to tap its troves of consumer data to help public officials fight the coronavirus.

The company Tuesday unveiled a new tool that pulls data from its Maps service to help officials measure how effective social distancing measures are around the world. The tool tracks how citizens’ driving, walking or public transit habits are changing based on their searches for directions to places.

The data is presented in an anonymous, aggregated form, and officials can view it down to the city level. For instance, it shows that in Washington, requests for public transit directions – for instance, by bus or subway – declined 83% since January 13. Even requests for walking directions were down 66%, suggesting that the restrictions are having a significant effect.

This tool can also compare the effects of social distancing between cities, or even between countries.

Washington is increasingly looking to tech companies such as Apple as it seeks more data to understand whether social distancing policies are working – and make crucial decisions about how and when to re-open parts of the economy.

But the companies are walking a fine line as they try to balance pressure from governments to take steps to maintain public health with their customers’ privacy expectations.

This is a particularly delicate tightrope for Apple, which has made strong user privacy a central component to its marketing pitch.

It’s telling that Apple chief executive Tim Cook led with privacy when announcing the initiative:

Apple says that the data isn’t associated with any individual’s Apple ID and that it doesn’t keep a log of where you’ve been. Its data presents a birds-eye view of how people are moving – or at least, thinking about moving as they type in directions.

This may not provide as much utility to public health officials as data that tracks their movements or presents what specific locations people are actually visiting within cities. And it’s a far cry from the ways that other countries are using location data to map the spread of the virus. In South Korea, for instance, public officials have used cell phone location data to alert people if they’ve come in contact with the virus. In China, officials used their vast digital surveillance apparatus to monitor people’s movements and ensure they were abiding by quarantines.

But as my colleague Geoffrey Fowler notes, it’s still uncomfortable for Apple – a company that ran ads that say “what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone” – to show how much data they’re holding about consumers. And how it can be deployed for purposes people likely never imagined when they opened the app to find directions. From Fowler:

Facebook and Google have already made aggregated location data available in the fight against the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal reports that public health officials at the federal and state level are using cellphone location data from the mobile advertising industry to trace people’s movement during the pandemic.

And by contrast, Apple’s decision seems tame. Google’s aggregated data set, for instance, lets officials know how much people are traveling to specific businesses, grocery stores and pharmacies, using the same technology that underpins the Google Maps feature that lets you know how crowded a restaurant might be.

Still, it’s all helpful to stop the spread, health experts say. Farzad Mostashari, the former national coordinator for health information technology at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said such systems “can be a very helpful tool for understanding both the risks of outbreak resurgence and the potential need for local leaders to push further on social distancing initiatives.” Mostashari now serves as chief executive of the health start-up Aledade.

There have already been signs of public health officials citing tech companies’ data when trying to evaluate their own policies. At a news conference in Philadelphia earlier this month, city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Google analytics data showed that residents were doing a pretty good job of social distancing, but compared to other cities they could do better. He gave the city’s efforts a B plus.

Apple, Facebook and Google’s efforts could be increasingly in the spotlight as they collaborate more directly with the White House on the coronavirus response. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai and Cook are among the executives who will participate in President Trump’sGreat American Economic Revival Industry Groups, which will work on a plan to restart the economy.

Tech companies are also building tools that would track whether individuals come in contact with the coronavirus. One ambitious effort Apple and Google are working on would use Bluetooth signals to detect whether a person’s cellphone has been near other individuals who mark themselves as diagnosed with the coronavirus in a public health app.

Leveraging aggregated data like the tool Apple revealed yesterday raises fewer privacy concerns, Mostashari said.

“Unlike the idea of Bluetooth contact tracing, this doesn’t raise privacy concerns because it can be conducted on an anonymous, aggregate sample and never requires re-identification or linkage,” he said.


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