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Even with no order, Wyoming does well staying put

Apr 12, 2020 By Clair McFarland, Staff Writer

By Clair McFarland

Staff Writer

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon congratulated Wyomingites during the week for staying put during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, citing tracking data compiled by Google.

A recent "mobility report" from Google showed statewide movement for retail locations is down 37 percent since public health orders were put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Gordon said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Wyoming Capitol.

Workplace visits are down by nearly 30 percent, Gordon said.

Wyoming is one of the few states that does not have a mandatory stay-home order in place statewide, but other requirements and voluntary actions have been in effect for weeks.

In Fremont County, there was a 17 percent drop in travel to grocery and pharmacy locations and a 27 percent drop in travel to workplaces between Feb. 16 and March 29, according to Google.

The report also shows a 15 percent increase in travel to homes in late March.

"This data shows that more people are staying home," the governor said.

They also may be spending more time outdoors: Google's report showed a 29 percent increase in travel to parks throughout the state, including national parks, public beaches, marinas, plazas, and public gardens.

Parks and transit station visits did not show "enough data" for a complete report, Google noted.

Some parks have been closed or restricted since the data collection began.

Location data

Google says it created the compilation of people's movements within 131 countries worldwide to help public health officials monitor responses to stay-home orders and other social distancing mandates during the coronavirus pandemic.

The report charts "movement trends" over time across retail and recreation locations, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential areas, Google reported.

More than 1 billion people use the location-services app Google Maps, according to a Feb. 6 report by Google. But Google isn't the only site tracking its users, Central Wyoming College assistant computer science professor Matt Herr said.

"Every single person with a smartphone is giving that (information) to their provider - Verizon, Union Wireless, or whoever that may be," Herr said.

Google is a "much larger aggregator," though, Herr said, so the company is able to track people "more effectively" using data from smaller providers.

Trust

Herr said Google filters out personal and identifiable information, and he doubted whether the tech giant would be interested enough in specific, personal information to intercept and use it for some other purpose.

"A lot of this boils down to trust," he said. "If you don't trust that the (provider) is going to treat you fairly, you should cease doing business with them."

Harold Perry, a former Microsoft employee and current product director at the blockchain gaming company Forte Labs, said Apple and Google both "anonymize" their information - because most of their consumers still value privacy.

He also noted that smartphone users have the power to control how much of their data gets lifted. For example, Google says its new mobility tracking system is anonymous and optional, and users may opt out by turning off location services in their device account settings and deleting location history. But turning off location services in today's GPS-navigated environment "will make life quite inconvenient," Perry said.

"The thing is, though, most people trade privacy for convenience," he said.

Herr pointed to Amazon and other marketplace sites, plus social media sites, which use "cookies" to track consumer interests.

"There is advertising being bought and sold all the time based your browser habits and your social media activity," he said, using as an example an ad for a bicycle appearing in one's social media feed moments after that person runs a browser search for a new bike.

Even game applications have access to location services, he said. Cellular towers, internet networks and Bluetooth services all get device location data too, Perry said, even for users who have turned off tracking option.

"Every server or website you hit is gathering data about you."

As for advertising companies buying data to predict behavioral patterns, Perry said those companies aren't interested in specific people, but types of people, characterized by algorithms.

"Whenever we're thinking of things like that, we think of a person - Google focusing on me sitting here at my desk - and that's really not the way we should be thinking about those things," said Perry.

Instead, he said, tech companies like Google "take all that data and aggregate (it) to build a big database of... behavior patterns."

Users are then divided into behavior groups, primed for ad campaigns.

"This is where things get spooky to me," Perry said. "They can start to predict what patterns you're going to take in the future."

And although those predictions currently are based on algorithm-classified "types" of consumers, Perry said companies or governments may shift their interests to individuals in the future.

Herr didn't think the large scale tracking methods used in the recently publicized Google mobility report would have larger implications.

"I'm not even sure how useful this information is at this point," he said.

For the reports to be "truly useful" in gathering information about the coronavirus pandemic, Herr said the tracking system would need to be more invasive than most people in the U.S. would prefer.

In South Korea, for example, people who have tested positive for coronavirus are required to download a tracking app on their mobile devices that logs their location and "ensures" they remain in quarantine, according to an April 7 story by the Washington Examiner.

"South Korea also uses people's cellphone and bank records, along with surveillance cameras, to track people with the virus," the story notes, and the information is publicized so non-infected people can track infected people.

"That's a bit intrusive," said Herr. "I don't think folks in the United States are ready for that - but in other countries it's happening as we speak."

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2020-06-03

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