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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

Updated 19 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan tributes flood in for "giant of the Senate" Bob Dole

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Sen. Bob Dole at an event put on by the World Food Program where he was awarded the first “McGovern-Dole Leadership Award” in December 2013. Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Republican and Democratic politicians, including former Senate colleagues, are sharing condolences and memories commemorating the life of Bob Dole, who passed away at 98 on Sunday morning.

The big picture: Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, was the longest serving Republican leader in the Senate until 2018, when current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surpassed his record.