Zuckerberg: Facebook isn’t giving governments data to track coronavirus spread

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies reports that the giant is considering providing location data to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook isn’t among the group of tech giants in talks about giving the US government location data from phones to track the coronavirus outbreak. The denial comes after a Tuesday report by the Washington Post about the White House and the Centers for Disease Control tapping tech companies.

In a press call Wednesday, the Facebook CEO denied the report, which has since been backed up by coverage from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. Zuckerberg said the reports were “largely overstated” and denied that the company was in discussions to give the US government any location data.

“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 on the call.

He noted that Facebook has had a Disease Prevention Map program for nearly a year, which it provides to health organizations around the world using location data from people who opt in.

A Facebook policy lead told CNET on Tuesday that researchers and nonprofits are able to use those maps to track the coronavirus outbreak, but Zuckerberg said the company hasn’t been in discussions to provide that location data to any governments yet.

Zuckerberg also told reporters on Wednesday that Facebook isn’t prepared to turn over people’s location data en masse to any governments for tracking the coronavirus outbreak.

“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 said.

When it comes to the Disease Prevention Map, Zuckerberg said the data is aggregated and anonymized, and designed to help researchers identify how diseases spread.

While Zuckerberg is denying that Facebook has had discussions with the US government on providing location data, Google said the search giant is looking into how it could help track the disease’s spread.

“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19,” the company said in a statement. “One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps.”

The US government isn’t the only one considering leveraging surveillance technology to track the coronavirus pandemic. Both the Chinese and the South Korean governments used phone apps to monitor people with coronavirus, and Israeli government officials approved a plan to use phone data to do the same.

Privacy standards have dropped amid the coronavirus outbreak, with government officials citing emergency circumstances. On Tuesday, the US Department of Health and Human Services said it was waiving penalties for health data privacy violations.

The tracking methods have largely been commended as effective ways to learn about how the coronavirus spreads and to develop ways to contain it. But the surveillance concerns could play out differently in the US than they do in other countries, where companies like Facebook and Google have faced lawmakers’ scorn for privacy scandals in the last several years.