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It’s truly amazing when you think about all of the capabilities your smartphone possesses.
You can navigate anywhere you want to in the world.
In seconds, you can have a face-to-face conversation with someone, regardless of their location.
But with those awesome powers comes privacy concerns.
We hand over so much of our own personal data, like our movements and health records, to our phones. Companies then have the ability to access that data.
Take for example the following report from KY3 regarding the use of cell phone data to track partiers in Lake of the Ozarks during Memorial Day weekend:
It's been more than a week since videos of pool bar parties at the Lake of the Ozarks went viral on Memorial Weekend.
Since then, the Camden County Health Department announced a positive case from Boone County visited multiple pool bars in the area.
"It's easy to think that you go to a place and you put yourself at risk, but a lot of people don't think of what that footprint looks like when you potentially contract something like this and then go back to your home, go on the rest of your vacation, wherever it may be," said Mike DiMarco, Chief Marketing Officer of Tectonix.
The company uses anonymized cell phone location data from X Mode Social. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the company has done several cell phone tracing videos.
"One of the first high profile ones we did was spring break in Fort Lauderdale," DiMarco said. "We took a look at devices active at a single beach, and then looked at the sprawl, and we're actually able to see devices going across the country."
After the viral videos of packed pool bars on Memorial Day Weekend, Tectonix focused on the Lake of the Ozarks.
This first part of the video shows the entire lake from the Monday before Memorial Day, to the holiday itself. Every blue dot you see on the screen represents a cell phone.
"As the week progresses, you can see the map populate with more and more records," DiMarco explained.
Tectonix then drew a circle around Backwater Jacks. Its one of the bars seen in many of those viral photos and videos, and is one of the bars a positive case of COVID-19 spent time at that Saturday.
The data shows after the weekend was over, those blue dots, or cell phones, spread out all across the midwest.
St. Louis, Kansas City, and Omaha, Nebraska saw a lot of activity.
"I think we saw about 14 states that got some version of traffic," DiMarco said.
While in this case cell phone tracking was used for a purportedly “good” purpose, what if that’s not always the case?
Cell phone users should also have a right to know that companies may be tracking their every move.
People pointed out on Twitter how similar methods may be used to track protesters:
Even Black Lives Matter tweeted a warning about cell phone tracking:
The Detroit News has more details on how cell phone data has been used to track protesters:
The tracking of hundreds of Michigan Capitol protesters’ cellphones from two rallies this spring has raised questions about protecting privacy rights, while testing limits of what location data can predict about the spread of the novel coronavirus from packed public events.
A liberal advocacy group most recently pursued the cellphone location data from more than 400 individuals who attended the American Patriots Rally on April 30 in Lansing against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home orders and used it to gauge their locations the next day in a bid to determine the potential spread of the virus from the demonstration.
The location of 422 cellphones within a roughly four-block radius of the Capitol showed individuals traveled back to areas throughout the state, including West Michigan, Metro Detroit, Northern Michigan and the Indiana border after the event, according to data obtained by VoteMap on behalf of the progressive group Committee to Protect Medicare and Affordable Care.
"They ended up pretty much scattered across the state," said Dr. Rob Davidson, executive director of Committee to Protect Medicare, a west Michigan emergency room physician and a Democratic former congressional candidate.
“I think you can absolutely argue that a likely high-risk group of individuals all gathering in close quarters have a high risk of propagating the virus,” said Davidson, whose group did not track protesters at the police brutality protests across Michigan over the weekend.
But the group pulled similar data at an April 15 rally called Operation Gridlock.
The tracking, known as "geoharvesting," is when data is gathered from a smartphone app on a device connected to the internet. That data contains geolocation information that can be queried to show movement on a map.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ contact tracing initiative has come across no reports where a COVID-19-positive individual reported attendance at an event, including protests, in their travel history, said Lynn Sutfin, a department spokeswoman.
The tracking has raised the hackles of Capitol demonstrators, such as Phil Robinson, a Barry County resident who said he considers the data gathering during the April 15 and April 30 protests a violation of his rights. The committee at least could have alerted attendees they were being tracked, he said.
"I’d have still showed up, but I would have left my phone at home. I wouldn’t have gone live on Facebook," said Robinson, founder of the Michigan Liberty Militia who attended both protests.
He also wondered why the Committee to Protect Medicare, which is supposed to be concerned about health care, would fail to track demonstrators at the police brutality protests in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit.
"That doesn’t make sense," Robinson said. "They’re going to track us at the Capitol but nowhere else?"
Ryan Kelley, a west Michigan resident who helped organize the American Patriot Rally, said he was uncomfortable with the cellphone location data being gathered there.
"That sounds like an invasion of privacy," Kelley said. "That sounds like it should be illegal.”
Mr. Kelley brings up a valid point. At what point did these individuals consent to be tracked?
Sure, we receive reassurances that the data is collected in a way to keep users anonymous, but can we really believe that or that it will always remain so?
Take a look at this video showing how Apple and Google plan to collect cell phone data due to COVID: