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Wisconsin Spotlight | June 17, 2020

MADISON — Talk about burying the lead.

The Eau Claire-Leader Telegram this week reported that Wisconsin received an “F” rating for social distancing.

What the article failed to fully disclose until the 17th paragraph is that Unacast, a New York and Norway-based data analytics firm created a “social distancing scoreboard” by grabbing data from mobile phones. That information could eventually be used by health and elected officials to try to re-issue draconian stay-at-home orders to deal with the pandemic.

Eau Claire County got an ‘F,’ too, by the way. How do we know? Because Unacast tapped into personal data through its “partnership” with smartphone applications.

“That data might include the location of the device, the device’s make and model, the direction and speed at which the device was travelling, according to Unacast’s privacy policy,” the Leader-Telegram story noted as nonchalantly as if it had published an upcoming zoning commission meeting in its government meetings section.

“Unacast can collect data from apps it partners with when the user grants permission for the app to access its location technology,” the story adds. While the tech company taps into your private information, it won’t reveal the names of the app providers it’s working with, according to the Washington Post.

So, while Unacast surveils your location and who you’re in contact with, it’s honoring its privacy agreements with fellow tech firms. That’s comforting.

An F rating means Wisconsin residents are “reducing their average distance traveled by less than 25%, and reducing their non-essential visits by less than 55%,” the newspaper reported.

That’s a big concern to health officials and government bureaucrats who don’t much care for the relaxing of local and state stay-at-home orders — or civil liberties. Even as Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death rates fall, they continue to push for restrictions on gatherings and wider quarantines.

As other media sources have reported, Unacast’s scores have not been reviewed by public health offices or disease-control specialists. How reliable its data is remains unclear.

But the tech firm’s data collection practices have raised alarm bells among privacy experts, mainly about the lack of control consumers have and who is privy to the personal information.

“(Unacast’s) privacy statement basically screams that it’s up to you to monitor which apps you use and your phone settings, if you don’t like the fact that companies like them are getting access to your location data,” Jennifer King, director of privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, told Recode. “In that respect, at least, it’s a bit more helpful than most notices and gives us a decent map as to how they’re getting the data.”

But under the terms, a company you’ve likely never heard of has a lot of data about your phone and, by extension, you, Vox reported earlier this year.

“That data includes your device’s unique advertising identifier; location data specific enough to detect which fast food restaurant the device is in and how long it’s been there; and the network name and MAC address of the wifi router the device is connected to,” the publication reported. 

That’s unsettling news to a lot of Americans.

A Pew Research poll last month found 62 percent of respondents say it is somewhat or very unacceptable for the government to use cellphones to track people’s locations to ensure they are complying with social distancing recommendations. Just 37 percent say it’s somewhat or very acceptable.

For those incensed about losing their individual liberties in one fell swoop in March and April, this kind of monitoring may not restore faith in government and the tools it uses.

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