If there has ever been a question about the amount of information Google has about you, let this sink in--the company just released county-level reports about exactly how our travel patterns have changed over the past few weeks. Most of us have some sense of the reality that we're always being tracked, especially when it comes to what we do online, but this data may give some of us pause.
It's not news that advertising platforms like Google and Facebook collect personal information. It's just a little shocking to see it this plainly in the form of a "Covid-19 Mobility Report."
That's what Google is calling the new reports which detail the change in travel patterns due to social distancing across six categories, including Retail & Recreation, Grocery & Pharmacy, Parks, Transit Stations, Workplaces, and Residential. You can view reports for the United States as a whole, by state, or even by county. There are reports available for other countries where data is available as well.
According to the company, the reports come from people who voluntarily have the "location history" feature turned on. In a blog post, published Friday, the company says that "insights in these reports are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default."
In case you aren't familiar, that's the feature that tracks your location in Google Maps, and saves a trail of where you travel and visit. I've recommended you turn that feature off, though I suspect--at least based on this data set--most people don't.
And so, Google knows a lot about us. It knows when you run to the store. It knows where you work and how far you travel to get there. It knows where your neighbor works and whether they're following the governments guidelines as well.
Google says that the data collected is done so using what is known as differential privacy--which adds random noise to each data set so that it can't be identified or connected to an individual. Except, if Google can break the data down by county, who's to say it can't also break it down by household? Despite the fact the company says it only gathers location data in aggregate, it clearly knows when you're home and when you leave home.
But it's still worth asking yourself whether or not we're really comfortable with the fact that Google knows this much about us, or more importantly, whether we want them sharing that data with the government.
Here's the challenge: There's definitely value in public health officials having data about how a community is practicing social distancing, at least in general terms. That's an important piece of information in evaluating the effect those efforts are having on the spread of Covid-19.
In this case the data is public (meaning they aren't sharing it privately with the government only), and it's certainly useful. It's also very revealing in that it demonstrates how much the government is actually depending on the tech industry to fight a pandemic. Oh, and it turns out that big tech and big brother aren't all that different after all.