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Facebook will develop tools to gather data on social distancing - here’s what that means for your privacy

Facebook will develop tools to gather data on social distancing - here’s what that means for your privacy
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

With the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly through communities, doctors and scientists cannot emphasize enough that social distancing - staying out of public spaces and away from other people, even family - reduces the chances of getting infected or infecting another with COVID-19. There is no doubt that staying at home works to "flatten the curve." 

Unfortunately, while most people are making an immense effort to stay at home and avoid contact with people they are not quarantined with (to make this more manageable we recommend the best TV streaming services and the best tablets), some are not. The urge to assemble into groups is irresistible - we are social creatures who crave human interaction on varying levels. But this is very dangerous now. 

Enter Facebook. The social media giant is reportedly developing tools to help researchers track the effectiveness of social distancing. Using user data, Facebook can track which communities are following the rules and which ones are not. 

While it feels very Big Brother-like, the tools, which are being developed by the Data for Good team, are designed to provide public health researchers with the information while protecting users' privacy. 

Simply put, the data aggregated is compiled into Disease Prevention Maps, which are designed to show how people are moving around regions. The maps will also show:

  • Co-location data: How likely people in one area are to encounter one another. 
  • Movement range trends: How often people are moving around and where they're going. 
  • A social connectedness index: How much people are moving across state lines. 

These data points are compiled to pinpoint which communities and areas will need the most help and which ones are the most at risk for a later outbreak or another outbreak of COVID-19. 

What does this mean for your privacy?

Facebook has insisted that user location and movement data will be provided anonymously, and the tracking won't be used to identity any one individual who refuses to follow stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. 

If you think you're immune to Facebook's data collection because you've disabled location services, think again: it can still get your information through other means, like check-ins. 

A company spokesperson said, “We think that Facebook and the wider tech industry can continue to find innovative ways to help respond to that crisis, but we don’t think the help entails compromising privacy.”

This is just one more way Facebook is reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's prioritized eradicating coronavirus misinformation  and introducing new ways to stay connected to loved ones while in isolation - but with mixed results