Kansas Says It’s Using Residents’ Cell-Phone Location Data to Fight Pandemic


The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is using a GPS program to track residents’ locations through their cell phones in a bid to slow coronavirus cases, Dr. Lee Norman, the head of department, revealed in a press conference Wednesday.

Kansas is the first state to publicly acknowledge its use of such a program. 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. 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.

“It’s so critical, and we’re not doing well,” Norman said Wednesday in a joint press conference with Governor Laura Kelly. “We have to uniformly, across the state of Kansas, get serious about this to decrease the amount of travel we’re doing and stay home. . . . We’re trying very hard to bend this curve, but we can’t do that if Kansans don’t cooperate.”

Reached for comment, KDHE communications director Kristi Zears directed National Review to Unacast’s website, but did not comment on when the state began using the program or under what law it was authorized.

While the publicly available data on Unacast’s website currently shows a four-day lag time, Norman revealed that data he had access to was updated every other day. Unacast began its coronavirus-tracking program last week, according to the Washington Post, which 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.

“Everything here is on the aggregated level — we can’t tell or disclose if any individual is staying at home or not,” Unacast chief executive Thomas Walle said. But he added that through the data, “We can start to see and learn what states are getting this right.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that government officials were starting to pool GPS data pulled from the mobile-advertising industry to track people’s movements amid the pandemic, and mentioned Unacast’s scoreboard. A source said that the data is being combined in a portal that could cover as many as 500 cities across the U.S., to streamline access for federal, state, and local officials.

Reports have detailed how other countries have disregarded privacy in the fight against the coronavirus, with South Korean authorities accessing security-camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data from cell phones, and car-navigation systems to track those infected.

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