As a responsible adult in the midst of the pandemic, you’ve been doing your part and social distancing as the experts recommend. But what about, you know, everyone else?
A company you’ve likely never heard of claims that it’s able to determine — on an individual basis — whether or not people have been taking appropriate spacing measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It’s able to accomplish such a feat because it’s collecting the location data of an untold number of smartphones around the country.
The company, Unacast, went live with its Social Distancing Scoreboard Tuesday. The dashboard billed as a public health utility includes a county-by-county breakdown of people’s movement patterns. It assigns each county a grade, which Unacast based (at least in part) on how much people are traveling.
“Using the change in distance traveled from pre-COVID-19 days as a proxy, we determined a ‘Social Distancing’ score for each county,” reads a blog post explaining the scoreboard. “We juxtaposed the Social Distancing score with the number of reported cases, sourced from the Corona Data Scraper, to show correlation with changes in behavior over time.”
Unacast, which is based in Norway, was founded by the two involved in the creation of TIDAL. Yes, the same TIDAL that was later bought by Jay-Z. It has all this data on U.S. residents because many of the free apps people download to collect and sell location data to companies like Unacast. Oh, and in some cases, the apps report location data directly back to Unacast.
“In addition to the data provided by our Partners, we receive data through our software development kit (‘SDK’) included in Apps of some of our Partners,” explains Unacast’s privacy statement. “Some of the data we receive from the Partners or through the SDK may constitute Personal Data under applicable laws.”
That data “may include” your phone’s advertising ID, latitude and longitude, IP address, “GPS horizontal accuracy value,” “The speed at which the device was traveling,” “The direction that the device was traveling,” and “WiFi SSID (network name) or BSSID (MAC address for the router)” among numerous other listed data points.
In other words, Unacast is one of many relatively unknown companies that knows the intimate details of your everyday life. But there’s no need to worry, Unacast assures us, as the “Social Distancing Scoreboard and other tools being developed for the Covid-19 Toolkit do not identify any individual person, device, or household.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that simply because the scoreboard doesn’t identify you specifically doesn’t mean Unacast can’t — it’s just that the company has decided not to make that information available to the public. And, you should all remember, that even stripped of personal identifiers like phone numbers or names, location data by itself is often enough to pinpoint unique individuals.
So enjoy the Social Distancing Scoreboard while you remain at home, appropriately socially distanced. And, while you do, keep in mind that an untold number of companies just like Unacast are busy analyzing your every move — either for the sake of public health, or their bottom line.