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And now for the Back Story on …
What our cellphones reveal about the virus
Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, an investigative reporter for The Times, has spent nearly a decade reporting on how websites and apps collect information on users. When the coronavirus hit the U.S., she and her colleagues discovered that the data showed that poor Americans were less likely to be able to stay home. Here are highlights from Jennifer’s chat with Times Insider.
What did you learn?
Orders telling people to stay at home are working in limiting movement, but people who are not under those orders are continuing to move around, and some people, particularly those who live in poorer areas, are more likely to keep moving because of their work.
It is good to feel that we’re all in this together, but the data shows that’s not the case. Some people are facing more risk than others.
How do you see the potential of location data helping to combat the coronavirus?
Epidemiologists and journalists are looking for ways this data might help model the trajectory of the pandemic and whether social distancing measures are working — or whether, if they’re relaxed, that leads to a resurgence of the disease.
What was your previous reporting on location data about?
I was demonstrating the profound capabilities of location data and how intrusive it can be; many people are unaware of the fact that it is gathered at all. A lot of companies’ statements about location data are misleading. Saying the data is “anonymous” is not adequately conveying how much it can tell you about somebody, even if you don’t know their name. Companies should be willing to tell you exactly what they’re doing.
Why did those concerns not apply to the use of location data for this story?
There are a lot of privacy advocates I know who disagree with the idea that location data should be collected or stored at all.
I would say it’s possible for users to agree to provide this data. Some of the things that Google does — telling you how long your route home is likely to take — can be useful.
I think an important factor for my personal interest in participating was that this is a public health crisis, and this data could help illuminate some of the inequalities involved.
That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.
To Melissa Clark for the recipe, and to Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the rest of the break from the news. Alex Traub conducted the interview for the Back Story. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode includes an interview with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, whose district has been hit hard by the coronavirus.
• Here’s our Mini Crossword, and a clue: Desert watering hole (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The Times has introduced “Rabbit Hole,” a new narrative audio series about what the internet is doing to us, anchored by our tech columnist Kevin Roose.