John McKay
John McKay

The August 7, 2020 Washington State Department of Health COVID update made reference to what's called "cellphone mobility data" when discussing "flattening" the curve of cases.

The report indicated cases are dropping in many areas not because of lack of travel, but due to what WSDOH says are mask use and social distancing.

However what stood out was their acknowledged use of some sort of cellphone tracking to find out what people's travel habits are. The statement reads as follows from WSDOH report:

"Recent changes in transmission rates don’t correlate to trends in cellphone mobility data, which plateaued starting in June."

We called US Cellular, our own personal provider, and confirmed that yes, your phone can be tracked when the "location" service is on. Of course, it's needed to utilize GPS when your searching for a location (traveling on vacation?). Some phones can even be tracked when the feature is off, but that's another program and topic (hackers). Basically, to use GPS and many features, location services must be one. That creates a visible 'beacon' from your phone..."I'm here...!"

Many of the apps and services we download and/or utilize usually ask for various permissions, or spell out what's required for the program to work. But nothing has been said about WSDOH doing this.

It just seemed unnerving that the WSDOH is using this data to keep an eye on folks. Yes, there are those who say it's a helpful tool, apparently it's been done in some overseas countries. But the last time we checked, there's been -0- information about this practice released by WSDOH. At no time during COVID has there been any indication this practice has been used.

We contacted them, but have not yet heard back. We also wondered if this practice is legal.  Here's what we learned.

The American Civil Liberties Union has a useful map showing what states have laws requiring warrants or other formal requests for location data. Washington state is one of the gray states on their map, meaning  "no binding authority, location information is unprotected."

The same goes for Oregon and Idaho. However if you live in Montana, and the government or other official entity wants access to such data, they have to get a warrant. The same for CA and Utah.

If you are concerned about this practice, you can go into your phone and turn off the "location" services. In many phones, including Android, there may be multiple location features, usually involving Google.

We hope to hear back from WSDOH with specifics about how they gather this data, how it is used, and what is done with it after it's been utilized.

To see the ACLU map of what states preserve mobile location data privacy better than others, click on the button below.

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