April 21, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Kansas senators concerned about state’s use of Unacast GPS tracking

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Last week the Sentinel reported that the State of Kansas was using GPS data from aggregator Unacast to track Kansans’ movement during the COVID-19 lockdown.
On April 1, Kansas Department of Health and Environment chief Dr. Lee Norman held a press conference announcing the use of a GPS program to track residents’ locations through their cell phones. Norman said such measures are necessary to track the measures of social distancing in counties across Kansas.

Kansas Justice Institute General Counsel and Litigation Director Samuel MacRoberts raised serious concerns in a letter to Governor Kelly, noting: “The wholesale collection of cellular data raises significant privacy issues, even during a pandemic.”

KJI is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Kansas Policy Institute, which also owns the Sentinel.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) similarly questioned the use of the data, going so far as to file a Kansas Open Records Act request demanding, among other things, “All records involving the Department of Health and Environment’s use of a third-party data collection program (such as Unacast) to track the movement of individuals through their cell phone data.”

Additionally, she sent a letter to Norman, asking for: “information regarding the authorization, or potential lack thereof, of KDHE to utilize such data in a government agency capacity. Please clarify which statute, law, or other regulatory system allows you to access GPS data of Kansas citizens. 

“Additionally, I would like KDHE to provide sound, clear evidence that the Unacast data, or any other similar data used by the state, cannot be disaggregated or individualized in any way that would violate the Constitutional rights of Kansas citizens,” Wagle said. “To that end, I am requesting the KDHE allow a representative of the legislature to review the data in order to determine if such data can be disaggregated or individualized.”

One concern many had was that Norman, in the press conference, said the data — which Unacast insists is “anonymized” and had a four-day lag, but that he was getting updates every other day.

Asked to clarify, Kristi Zears, KDHE spokeswoman, said Friday that the data has a four-day lag time — meaning the most up-to-date information from Unacast is four days old — but that the site is updated every day, adding “This is a tool in fighting COVID-19, not a sole reliance for decision-making.”

The Sentinel also pointed out last week that there may be flaws in using the data for policy making at all as 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 — which could tend to skew the numbers.

Additionally, population densities in the rural areas are a fraction of the urban areas, making the chances for infection much smaller as well.

The Washington Post has also raised red flags with technology, with columnist Geoffrey Fowler writing:  “Privacy advocates worry data firms like Unacast can be dodgy because they’re gathering locations without real consent from people.”

Other Kansas Senators had mixed feelings about the tracking.

State Senator Richard Hilderbrand (R-Baxter Springs) said Kansans need answers to how this data is being used.

“This should cause great concern for Kansans,” Hilderbrand said in an email. “To know that our state is using a third-party GPS tracking company to monitor how well they are obeying the governor’s Executive Orders is very alarming. Kansans deserve to know the answers to these questions; How much is the state paying for these services? How long has the state been using these services?  How much personal data is available for the state to see? Does the state have any future plans for the use of this data?”

Hilderbrand was also concerned about the accuracy of Unacast’s tracking.

“According to the publicly available website that the state is using, the accuracy of the data has to be questioned,” he said. “There is no way of knowing if people are adhering to the social distancing guidelines. Because Kansas is a rural state, there aren’t always essential businesses on every block in every community. Kansans living in rural areas have to drive longer distances to get their groceries, medicine and other essential items.”

State Senator Randall Hardy, (R-Salina), said he had overall privacy concerns in general with this sort of data harvesting, but not with the way it is being used by the Kelly Administration.

“I was surprised when I heard that a private company was able to access cell phone movement legally,” he said. “I am concerned about privacy issues in general regarding this type of information being harvested. 

“Since this information is readily accessed by anyone, I do not think that Kansas did anything wrong by using the data.”

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