Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa Bay news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Charlotte news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For all the recent talk about using phone location data to track the progress of the coronavirus epidemic, experts say the data is more likely to bolster longer-term research than provide much immediate help, at least in the U.S.

Driving the news: A Washington Post report Monday suggested that talks between the federal government and Facebook, Google and other tech companies could harness location data anonymously to combat the virus. But any such efforts would face major technical, practical, legal and ethical hurdles.

The big picture: Disease mapping has been a fundamental technique of modern public health efforts dating back to the birth of the field, during efforts to stem a cholera epidemic in Victorian London. GPS-enabled smartphones potentially give contemporary researchers a level of granular detail their predecessors couldn't imagine.

The catches:

Testing — The U.S. initially failed to test widely for the novel coronavirus, and there are continued test shortages.

  • No amount of location data can make up for missing infection data.
  • Anonymized fever data drawn from an app that has a million smart thermometers in use in the U.S., as the New York Times reports, might prove more valuable.

Precision — Today, a strong GPS signal gets you to within 5 yards' accuracy.

  • That's plenty to tell researchers whether an individual is, for instance, leaving home to visit another location.
  • But it's not good enough to "track whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak," as the Washington Post story said.
  • It can't determine whether people are staying the recommended six feet away from others in public.

Consent — In the U.S., app makers generally must ask users for consent if they want to use location data. But most users checked that box long ago for at least a handful of key services, like Google's and Apple's mapping tools.

  • The apps, in turn, won't hand personalized data over to government unless they receive a court order.
  • Services like Facebook and Google do share some anonymized data with researchers under a variety of different sets of rules.

Other countries, particularly those without strong civil liberties traditions, are taking more aggressive approaches.

  • In China, the powerful machinery of a surveillance state fed by networks of devices and guided by AI algorithms has been turned against the epidemic.
  • In Israel, the cabinet approved emergency powers for the government to use phone data to track people who are infected with the coronavirus.

Another effort in the U.S. is a project in which the government is teaming with Palantir, the data-mining giant, to model the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal. Other ideas under discussion include efforts to use facial recognition systems to trace individuals who have come into contact with the virus.

Our thought bubble: Today's tech-driven communications networks surely have a role to play in tracking the coronavirus. But other kinds of technology — like testing kits, ventilators, and vaccine research — are what count most in this fight. Our fascination with the magical power of smartphone data smacks of "technological solutionism" — the idea that for every real-world problem, there's an app-based cure.

Go deeper

The new Washington

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Axios subject-matter experts brief you on the incoming administration's plans and team.

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.

Far-right figure "Baked Alaska" arrested for involvement in Capitol siege

Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The FBI arrested far-right media figure Tim Gionet, known as "Baked Alaska," on Saturday for his involvement in last week's Capitol riot, according to a statement of facts filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

The state of play: Gionet was arrested in Houston on charges related to disorderly or disruptive conduct on the Capitol grounds or in any of the Capitol buildings with the intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of a session, per AP.