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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.

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

More than 100 corporate executives and leaders gathered on a Zoom call Saturday to discuss ways to combat controversial voting bills being considered in states across the country that would restrict voting access, per the Washington Post.

Why it matters: American corporations flexed their advocacy muscles earlier this month when more than 100 companies signaled their opposition to Georgia's new voting law, inciting the wrath of GOP leaders, including former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived for his first visit in Jerusalem amid nuclear talks in Vienna and growing tensions between Israel and Iran.

Why it matters: Austin met his counterpart Benny Gantz and will meet later with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss Iran and regional security issues.

"I was horrified": Leaders respond to footage of Black and Latino Army officer threatened at traffic stop

An Army officer is suing two Virginia police officers after he said they drew their guns and pepper-sprayed him during a traffic stop in December.

Why it matters: Footage of the incident has drawn widespread criticism from leaders and groups in the state. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, is heard saying “I’m honestly afraid to get out," to which a police officer responds “Yeah, you should be," in a video from a body-worn camera.