May 21, 2024

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Cell phone tracking system raises privacy concerns for Kansans

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The Kansas Justice Institute on Wednesday warned of potential privacy issues surrounding the use of data from a cell phone tracking system to monitor the movement of Kansans during the pandemic.

Wednesday afternoon, The Kansas Department of Health and Environment held a press conference announcing the use of a GPS program to track residents’ locations through their cell phones. KDHE Secretary, Dr. Lee Norman, announced at the press conference that such measures are necessary to track the measures of social distancing in counties across Kansas.

KJI General Counsel and Litigation Director Samuel MacRoberts raised serious concerns in a letter he sent to Governor Laura Kelly. 

“The wholesale collection of cellular data raises significant privacy issues, even during a pandemic,” MacRoberts said in the letter. 

MacRoberts also cites media reports that say “academic research published last year suggested it is possible to ‘re-identify’ the majority (99.8 percent) of people who had featured in anonymized datasets. Other researchers suggest “true anonymization of location data is nearly impossible.”

Moreover, the data collected by the cell phone tracking program is possibly flawed.

The National Review reported that Kansas is the first state to publicly admit they are using the program called “Unacast.”

“Norman said that the state was using a platform called Unacast, which compares anonymized GPS data from before and after the implementation of social-distancing measures to track the measures’ effectiveness and offer county-level grades,” NR wrote. “Norman said that 45 of Kansas’s 105 counties had received an F rating as of Wednesday, while the state’s overall grade sat at a C.”

According to The National Review, Uncast began its tracking program last week and the Washington Post reported that: “the program could not identify whether people were staying six feet apart from one another, and that the data it did produce was not vetted by health authorities or epidemiologists. Because Unacast acquires location data from other applications, it is not legally required to notify users that they are being tracked.”

Unacast acquires its location data from other applications, such as mobile games and other mobile advertisers and “compares anonymized GPS data from before and after the implementation of social-distancing measures to track the measures’ effectiveness and offer county-level grades,” the National Review wrote.

The problem with the data as it exists, is first, that it predates Governor Laura Kelly’s state-wide stay at home order, and second that it doesn’t take into account geography.
The urban — and also high-transmission areas — Johnson, Sedgewick, Douglas, Wyandotte, Shawnee and Riley County areas don’t have a major problem with mobility — but they also have far more options for delivery, and groceries.

Many communities in rural areas have either one, or no grocery stores, requiring residents to travel a half-hour or more to buy essentials like food — or to the doctor. Additionally, population densities in the rural areas are a fraction of the urban areas, making the chances for infection much smaller as well.

Kristi Zears, KDHE spokeswoman, said “essential services and actions” are taken into account.

“Kansas is using publicly available data as a tool to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 in our community.  This tool,, is available for anyone in our community to see,” Zears said. “There are essential services and actions allowable under the Stay at Home order. The data, as indicated in their methodology section, takes that into account but looks for overall reduction.”

Michael Austin, the director of the Kansas Policy Institute’s Center for Entrepreneurial Government said the stay at home order — as well as the data collection — is inefficient and heavy-handed. KPI owns the Sentinel.

“Nevermind the privacy and ethical concerns this presents, the administration’s lockdown strategy is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” Austin said. “Before the lockdown, the state’s major population centers, which are also high transmission areas, were already at 45% less mobile and more were staying home every day. While sparsely populated areas showed no change in mobility, these areas with few people simply don’t have the transmission concerns as large as urban areas.

“What should the Governor have done instead? Focus on areas or the behavior that contributes greatly to spreading COVID-19. Do that, and you can flatten the curve at a much lower economic cost to Kansans.”

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