X-Mode says it provides location tracking services to app makers for the likes of weather and transit apps. The locations of spring breakers and others with those apps on their phones could have been tracked. X-Mode says the data it collects through apps and then provides to advertisers and other companies is anonymized, meaning it does not match individuals to the devices it tracks. The company did not provide the names of the apps their technology is embedded in.
“We wanted to showcase the impact of what happens when you don’t exercise social distancing and essentially how small our community is,” Josh Anton, X-Mode’s CEO, told CNN Business on Tuesday. “Our community’s very connected.”
The map generated from X-Mode’s data by Tectonix, a data visualization firm, is indeed powerful and underlines why the US government might be considering using location data from Americans’ cell phones to try to track and possibly curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
It also may point to a potential sea change in how some in the tech industry talk about the data they possess. Silicon Valley has endured years of high-profile data privacy scandals. But now smaller companies like X-Mode, unheard of unknown by the majority of Americans, are publicly touting demonstrations of their technology — suggesting businesses like theirs see the potential of helping track the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to show how their often maligned data can be used for good. Cuebiq, another location tracking company, has been similarly public about its abilities.
The potential embrace of such technologies by the US government is leaving privacy advocates feeling uneasy.
David Carroll, an associate professor at The New School in New York and a privacy campaigner who has worked for years exposing Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, warned the coronavirus pandemic could be used as a way to undermine American civil liberties.
“Pandemics offer an urgent justification to surrender to surveillance that informs response efforts. But privacy protections, especially related to health data, are among the first to be rescinded in this type of emergency,” Carroll told CNN Business on Wednesday.
“Beyond taking pains to exploit our location data responsibly and temporarily, we need to ensure that when we return to normal, we do the work of dismantling the pandemic panopticon and finish overdue reform in the United States, which includes improving how we enforce fundamental data protection rights around the world,” he added. “Otherwise pandemic-level surveillance capabilities will surely be abused.”
Location tracking, like what X-Mode does, is not out of the ordinary in the technology industry, but normalizing it could incentivize exploitation of such capabilities.
Anton says X-Mode does not match people’s identities to the devices it tracks and that the company complies with European and Californian privacy laws, both Europe and California have implemented new data privacy laws in recent years.
The CEO said he believes any tracking tool built for this purpose should ask for the consent of the people being tracked. “People will willingly consent for something like that if it means saving their lives,” he said, “people they know, or people they don’t.”