Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and Patience Haggin at the Wall Street Journal: “While an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Joshua Anton created an app to prevent users from drunk dialing, which he called Drunk Mode. He later began harvesting huge amounts of user data from smartphones to resell to advertisers.
Now Mr. Anton’s company, called X-Mode Social Inc., is one of a number of little-known location-tracking companies that are being deployed in the effort to reopen the country. State and local authorities wielding the power to decide when and how to reopen are leaning on these vendors for the data to underpin those critical judgment calls.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office used data from Foursquare Labs Inc. to figure out if beaches were getting too crowded; when the state discovered they were, it tightened its rules. In Denver, the Tri-County Health Department is monitoring counties where the population on average tends to stray more than 330 feet from home, using data from Cuebiq Inc.
Researchers at the University of Texas in San Antonio are using movement data from a variety of companies, including the geolocation firm SafeGraph, to guide city officials there on the best strategies for getting residents back to work.
Many of the location-tracking firms, data brokers and other middlemen are part of the ad-tech industry, which has come under increasing fire in recent years for building what critics call a surveillance economy. Data for targeting ads at individuals, including location information, can also end up in the hands of law-enforcement agencies or political groups, often with limited disclosure to users. Privacy laws are cropping up in states including California, along with calls for federal privacy legislation like that in the European Union.
But some public-health authorities are setting aside those concerns to fight an unprecedented pandemic. Officials are desperate for all types of data to identify people potentially infected with the virus and to understand how they are behaving to predict potential hot spots—whether those people realize it or not…(More)”