As of Friday, April 3, Google offers information on population flows in 131 countries, region by region. This is fairly fine data that allows us to observe variations in frequentation in grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, public transit stations, etc., and which could prove very useful during periods of confinement.
An example: we downloaded the document for France and examined the case of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. It comes out – not surprisingly – that attendance at grocery stores and pharmacies has decreased by 68% compared to normal, that of public transport stations by 85%, etc. According to Google, this data can help public authorities to forecast possible needs, according to sectors and regions, in food, delivery, transport, etc.
Where does this data come from? Analysis of the location information of owners of smartphones using Google services. If you have activated geolocation on Google Maps, your location history is taken into account. However, Google specifies that this data is anonymized, therefore not nominative, and aggregated. In addition, these are not “neat” numbers, but only variations that indicate trends. If you wish, you can deactivate geolocation (but you will lose certain services…).
All this is not new. However, it does reveal how much information Google has about us and how accurate it is. These data are even more precise than those recently transmitted to public authorities by the mobile operator Orange, which relied only on the demarcation of relay antennas.
Secondly, there will be the question of the technology that it will probably be necessary to implement to get out of containment while avoiding a resumption of the epidemic. The Government is considering an application. But which ? The big question is whether to track travel history, which is very intrusive, or just exploit interactions between people, which helps to respect privacy better?
Tracking individual trip histories (backtracking) is practiced in China or South Korea. This consists of monitoring smartphones via GPS (very precise) or by demarcating relay antennas (less precise) in order to know where we are going and where we have gone. But, as European Commissioner Thierry Breton says, it is “not in our culture”. In addition, it is probably illegal in France, unless the legislation changes. One solution could be to guarantee anonymity by fully encrypting the data. Certain technical solutions of this kind are being studied, notably at the MIT (Massachussetts Institute of Technology, but it seems unlikely that they will be used in France.
The other option, towards which the Government seems to be heading, concerns monitoring of interactions between people (contact tracing), as is done in Singapore and possibly soon in Germany. Technically, this involves using the Bluetooth of mobile phones to detect if infected people meet or have encountered healthy people. When in a place, the smartphone detects other smartphones nearby and compares the information in its possession. This will immediately send instructions like “do not go to such and such a place because there are people at risk “. This method, a priori, better guarantees privacy.
In any case, to be effective, these solutions must be able to rely on large-scale tests or, at least, health questionnaires, filled out honestly by citizens.