Google to track people's movements and activities - globally

via Flickr © zigazou76  (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © zigazou76 (CC BY 2.0)

  • "Community Mobility Reports" designed to help with management of the coronavirus
  • So far covers 131 countries (but not China)
  • All well and good "for the duration but...
  • Potential is that enhanced surveillance will continue long after the crisis

The Kraken that is Google has been lying comparatively low since the outbreak of the coronavirus but now we know what it has been doing. Down there in the darkness it has been quietly flexing its world-encompassing tentacles and has now surfaced to tell us that it will publicly track the movement of people in 131 countries (with China being a very notable exception) for the duration of the pandemic. Is this benign altruism or untrammelled, unregulated surveillance that could continue in place long after the current crisis is over? 

Google is to release regular "Community Mobility Reports" online that will map the movement of people to a long list of different types of location on a country-by-country basis. The published data will cover movements and activity from two days before publication and will be based largely on location data captured from Google Maps which will then be collated, manipulated and published.

The Community Mobility Reports chart movement trends by geographical location over time across different categories such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks and beaches, railway and bus stations, domestic homes and offices and other workplaces. A blog posting this morning, authored, or at least jointly  bylined, by Jen Fitzpatrick, a senior vice-president at Geo and Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the chief health officer at Google Health, says that the reports show percentage point increases or decreases in the number of visits to a location rather than the number of individual visits to a certain place.

Google, adds that no personally identifiable information such as someone's location, contacts or movement "is made available" to protect people's privacy. Interestingly, there is no list of businesses, organisations or authorities that may also get separate access to the data. 

We are told that the great bulk (i.e. not all) of the detail in the reports is sourced from subscribers and users who have turned on (or forgotten to turn off) the 'location history' settings on their mobile devices. Google says the new 'service' will show how busy or comparatively quiet locations are currently as compared to how busy they were before CoVID 19 stopped the world in its tracks.

It further adds that it 'hopes' the information "could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings, while persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people the room to spread out for social distancing."

Google insists that has and will continue to anonymise the information and will leaven it with "some" random data "to safeguard individuals." The first Community Mobility Report uses data from March 29 and compares it to the statistical median for the weeks between January 3 and February 6. It is claimed that as the pandemic progresses the comparisons will become more relevant and significant.

Meanwhile, and just yesterday, the Chief Justice of the European Union, Vera Jourova, criticised social media companies for being far too slow to take down fake news and false information about CoVID 19. She said. "We still see that the major platforms continue to monetise and incentivise disinformation and harmful content about the pandemic by hosting online ads. This should be stopped. The financial disincentives from clickbait disinformation and profiteering scams also should be stopped."

We wait agog for Google to blog gushingly about its efforts in that respect.

Comparative stats from three cities and one region

Here are some selected statistics from the first Google Community Mobility Report and as of March 29.


Retail and recreation sites were down by 87 per cent. Grocery and pharmacies were down by 48 per cent. Parks down by 59 per cent. Railway and bus stations down by 80 per cent. Offices and other workplaces down by 62 per cent but domestic homes were up by I6 per cent.

New York City:

Retail and recreation sites were down by 62 per cent. Grocery and pharmacies were down by 32 per cent. Parks were down by 47 per cent. Railway and bus stations down by 68 per cent. Offices and other workplaces down by 46 per cent while places of residence were up by 16 per cent.


Retail and recreation showed a decline of 94 per cent. Grocery and pharmacies were 72 per cent lower. Parks down by 92 per cent. Railway and bus stations down by 89 per cent. Meanwhile, offices and other workplaces down by 65 per cent but domestic homes were up by 22 per cent.

Lombardy: (the northern area then at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy)

Retail and recreation sites were 95% down. Grocery and pharmacies were down by 81 per cent. Parks were down by 59 per cent. Railway and bus stations were down by 89 per cent. Offices and other workplaces were down by 65 per cent while domestic residences were up by 24 per cent.

The above figures are undeniably interesting but what is concerning a growing number of analysts is the strong possibility, even likelihood, that new and enhanced surveillance methods of varying levels of intrusiveness including mobile apps tracking the geolocation of individuals, facial recognition systems in the street and inside buildings and smart card and credit card tracking will become, if not the new norm, very difficult indeed to roll back even to the already unacceptable levels that pertained before the pandemic struck.

Think about this: Last week the Moscow authorities quietly placed a new app called "Social Monitoring" on the Google Play store. Presented as an aid to understanding quarantine regulations and good citizenship, were the app to be downloaded (and it was, an unknown number of times by an unknown number of Muscovites) it immediately gained access to a subscriber's geolocation, camera, phone, and all other onboard sensors on mobile devices. 

Users were given no indication about the amount of data they would be unwittingly providing to a faceless bureaucracy and unknown law enforcement or security organisations. When people realised what was going on there was an immediate and vituperative backlash. Eduard Lysenko, the head of the Moscow Department of Information Technologies claimed the app was just a "test version” designed for assessment by other IT specialists. Nobody believed him and the app was quickly withdrawn, but that doesn't mean it won't be back in due course.

Thankfully, one can usually rely on the man from Duluth to come up with an appropriate line or two about dystopia, so how about this? "The riot squad they're restless, they need some place to go, as Lady and I look out tonight on Desolation Row."



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