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Google: seizing a crisis to legitimise mass surveillance?

Even in times of Corona, Google follows you wherever you go. The company collects and processes all our location data en masse and can thus graph how well we adhere to the imposed measures.

By Bits of Freedom (guest author) · May 13, 2020

Even in times of Corona, Google follows you wherever you go. The company collects and processes all our location data en masse and can thus graph how well we adhere to the imposed measures. Google presents this as a contribution to fight the health crisis. Will Google be able to legitimise a longstanding practice in which violating our privacy and data protection rights is central? Not if we have anything to say about it.

Your partner has to stay 1.5 meters away, and Google accompanies you to the toilet

Where we have to keep a minimum distance from each other, Google follows a lot of us into the bathroom. Google travels everywhere with us in our pocket, collecting intimate data on us. Based on this data, the company not only knows where you are going, but also what you are doing there and with whom. That isn’t new, Google has been doing this for years. And the company has been under fire for this for years, too.

Mass surveillance in a privacy-friendly façade

What is new is the opportunity offered by a crisis like this to legitimise these mass surveillance practices. By sharing this data, Google gets to play the role of benevolent helper, rather than harshly-criticised data grabber. By using terms such as ‘anonymised’ and ‘aggregated’, Google’s mass surveillance is cloaked as something resembling privacy. But we must remember that Google’s data insights are made up of the data of millions of people who are tracked by Google on an individual level. And often against their will.

What use do we consider acceptable?

The data and insights that Google provides to governments might not trace back to the individual, but can indeed still have major consequences for the individual. The data is interesting for governments because they may use them to adjust their policies accordingly. If the data show that the park visits in the Dutch city of Groningen increased in recent weeks, the city might choose to up the surveillance in the parks. Or perhaps extra fines will be written out to deter people. In theory, it would even be possible to make a score of how well your community complies with the measures, and to then use this score when considering whether or not you get a spot in the intensive care. What application do we consider acceptable? And who determines that? Google or another foreign multinational corporation?

Governments: Do not legitimise this unlawful data grabbing

Everyone understands that in crisis situations it may be necessary to take exceptional policy measures, and that good policy means informed policy. Data is needed to understand the situation and solve problems. It is important that the data used by the government across the entire chain is collected correctly and with integrity. If the government falls into the trap of using data that have been unlawfully collected, it legitimises the mass surveillance of its citizens and makes our public health, now and in the future, dependent on foreign multinationals. Quick solutions can also quickly lead to long-lasting problems.

Read more:

Complaint filed against Google Tracking ID (13.05.2020)

Google Publishes Location Data Across 130 Countries To Show How Coronavirus Lockdowns Are Working (03.04.2020)

Coronavirus: Google Maps data released as part of fight against covid-19 (03.04.2020)

Google’s location tracking finally under formal probe in Europe (04.02.2020)

Google faces GDPR complaint over ‘deceptive’ location tracking (27.11.2018)

(Contribution by Lotte Houwing, from EDRi member Bits of Freedom)