Mobile Phone Location Data of Florida Beachgoers During Spring Break Tracked to Show Potential Coronavirus Spread

Heat maps created using data from citizens' mobile devices are demonstrating just how quickly potential novel coronavirus cases can spread throughout the U.S.

Location data from U.S. mobile technology company X-Mode is being fed into a mapping platform called Tectonix to analyze human movements during the COVID-19 pandemic, with videos of the results posted to Twitter showing how easily containment efforts can rapidly spiral out of control.

In one test, first reported by The Daily Dot, the team analyzed devices that were active on a single Florida beach during Spring break and tracked where they ended up.

A second experiment looked at social distancing efforts in New York, showing devices leaving the region, traveling "all the way across our country and throughout the world."

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It's a glimpse into the power and scope of mobile tracking data, which the tech companies claim is anonymized to not reveal information about the owner of the device.

The Washington Post reported last week that the U.S. government was in "active talks" with Google, Facebook and other tech firms about how it could use cell phone location data to monitor the movements of citizens during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It's not always clear how such companies collect and secure such data. In this instance, X-Mode says that its anonymous trove has been "aggregated at the advertising ID level." Such IDs, associated with individual devices, are used to tailor ads to specific interests, browsing activity and locations.

"We never collect, handle, or store personally identifiable information (PII), such as your name, phone number, email, date of birth, or gender," the company asserted on its privacy page.

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Tectonix says online its mapping tool can provide visualizations on "billions of data points" and that its team has worked "closely with federal clients such as the Department of Defense for years."

The heat map project that was unveiled on social media this week attracted significant criticism, as users struggled to comprehend how it was possible—and ethical—to track individual devices.

"You are literally demoing a data set that allows you to track individuals' travel back to their homes and calling that 'anonymized'?" as one Twitter user wrote to the Tectonix account.

Indeed, academic research published last year suggested it is possible to "re-identify" the majority (99.98 percent) of people who had featured in anonymized datasets, as TechCrunch reported.

The big data company attempted to calm concerns mounting on its social feed, claiming the project was "using data to progress, not to invade." While still murky, the Spring break demo showed how the tool performs in reality, letting the user circle a map area and then follow mobile devices over time.

"We wanted to see the true footprint social gatherings like Spring break beach crowds could really have on our society in the face of a global pandemic," the video narration explained.

Miami Beach, Florida
A skateboarder passes a "Beach Closed" sign on the boardwalk on March 22, 2020 in Miami Beach, Florida. The city of Miami Beach has closed all parks and beaches due to COVID-19, however the boardwalk is open for people to exercise. Cliff Hawkins/Getty

The clip continued: "Each of the data points shown on the map corresponds to a unique mobile device active on a given day. You can see clearly that device activity spikes during the two week stretch of early to mid March, corresponding to Spring Break. No surprise.

"As we zoom [out] it becomes clear the massive potential impact just one single beach gathering can have in spreading this virus across our nation. It can be hard for us to realize sometimes just how connected our world really is, until the data tells the stories that we just can't see."

X-Mode says it complies with data laws and mobile users can opt out of tracking, which is typically agreed to when a user downloads an app and gives it permission to use their current location.

The U.S. now has the most novel coronavirus infections in the world, with over 86,000 people testing positive, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The disease has caused at least 1,300 deaths in the country, while more than 750 citizens have recovered at the time of writing.

As the illness spread this month, some spring breakers continued to travel to Florida beaches against the advice of health officials to maintain social distancing. A CBS News interview with a graduate from Ohio instantly went viral online after he was filmed in Miami saying, "If I get corona, I get corona."

He later apologized for the "insensitive"comments in an Instagram post.

On March 21, the University of Tampa confirmed that five of its students who had traveled together during Spring break had tested positive for COVID-19. Their names and ages were not released.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks.
  • Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
Mobile Phone Location Data of Florida Beachgoers During Spring Break Tracked to Show Potential Coronavirus Spread | Tech & Science