Facebook is not in talks with the US government about sharing users’ smartphone location data to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
“We’re not aware of any active conversations or asks with the US or other governments at this point asking for access to that data specifically,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think it would make sense to share people’s data in a way where they didn’t have the opportunity to opt in to do that,” he added.
Zuckerberg’s denial came after The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Facebook, Google, and other tech companies were in talks with the government about a creating a system that would use location data to track the spread of COVID-19 and to see whether social distancing guidelines were actually being followed.
The system described by the Post would potentially use aggregated, anonymized data provided by tech companies to determine how likely it is that the disease will spread between different regions in the US.
While Zuckerberg said Facebook is not part of the specific conversation around sharing users’ location data with the government, the company does have a tool meant to help track the movements and demographics of people affected by a disease outbreak.
Facebook’s Disease Prevention Maps, as the tool is called, was released in 2019, months before COVID-19 had been identified. Since then, it has been used to track the spread of cholera in Mozambique and to help improve vaccination rates in Malawi.
As the US scrambles to fight the coronavirus pandemic that has killed roughly 8,000 people worldwide, the government appears to be taking a page from other countries like China, South Korea, and Israel which have implemented similar - as well as more aggressive - surveillance measures. Some of these measures have raised privacy concerns.
A task force that includes Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon held a meeting with White House officials on Sunday to discuss ways to help it combat the virus, according to the Wall Street Journal. On Tuesday, Facebook also said it’s working with other major social media companies and government health agencies to reduce the spread of misinformation.