12:49 GMT27 November 2020
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    Google has recently begun releasing community mobility reports worldwide to give anyone and everyone access to data derived from individuals’ locations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its helpfulness, that this service is coming from a private company, rather than a state health service, has prompted some to question Google’s reach.

    Web developer and technologist Chris Garaffa joined Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear on Monday to discuss Google’s publication of user data and highlight another digital privacy story that is currently flying under the radar during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Where is Google getting this information? They’re getting it from our cell phones. They’re getting it because they have convinced us - or in many cases it’s hidden from us, the fact that they are collecting this,” Garaffa told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou.

    [Segment begins around 14:00]

    At the end of each mobility report, Google notes they “calculate these insights based on data
    from users who have opted-in to Location History for their Google Account, so the data represents a sample of our users.”

    “The problem with that statement is they do everything they can to get you to turn that on. They convince you that … when you’re setting up the app, whether it’s Google Maps or even just turning on your Android phone, they try to get you to opt in with those prompts that say ‘Enable Location History,’” Garaffa explained.

    “So it is turned off by default, but unfortunately that’s not good enough, because they constantly are bombarding you in order to get you to turn Location History on.”

    While things such as the mobility reports from Google could be useful in analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on locations around the world, there should be a healthy amount of fear associated with the fact that a private company has gained access to so many individuals’ data, Garaffa argued.

    “We have so many ways that we could be using technology to fight COVID-19 and to enforce stay-at-home regulations and do all of these things that are absolutely necessary,” they said. “But the idea that Google knows that … here in Connecticut, for example, [there is a] 56% decline in [activity at] retail and recreation locations. That is terrifying to me.”

    In related news, Vice’s Motherboard published an article on Friday which cited Israeli surveillance vendor NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio’s recent declaration filed in the US District Court of the Northern District of California. In the court document, Hulio claimed that Facebook approached the group in an effort to purchase parts of its Pegasus spyware - which remotely infects cell phones and allows the hacker to lift data - to spy on Apple devices.

    "The Facebook representatives stated that Facebook was concerned that its method for gathering user data through Onavo Protect [a Facebook application] was less effective on Apple devices than on Android devices," the court filing reads.

    "The Facebook representatives also stated that Facebook wanted to use purported capabilities of Pegasus to monitor users on Apple devices and were willing to pay for the ability to monitor Onavo Protect users."

    Garaffa highlighted that if not for the ongoing pandemic, this would definitely be a bigger story in mainstream media.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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    Tags:
    Social media, Facebook, cell phones, coronavirus, COVID-19, Google
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