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Creepy tech spies give Minnesota's coronavirus social distancing an 'A'

Minnesotans have restricted their movements to prevent the spread of coronavirus... according to companies tracking our phones.

Minnesotans have restricted their movements to prevent the spread of coronavirus... according to companies tracking our phones. Associated Press

Several reports are backing up what Minnesotans already suspected long before this pandemic rolled around: Our state is really, really good at self-isolating.

We know because there are actually a few metrics out there. On the more anecdotal side, health site CPOE.org has been looking over 4 million geotagged tweets since March 1, watching who's tweeting stuff like “#socialdistancing” and “stayhomesavelives,” and where.

By that measure, Minnesota’s seventh in the nation for zealously promoting our attempts to flatten the curve. Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont make up the top three, and Louisiana was at the bottom with the least activity, according to a press release by CPOE.

If there's some truth to this map, we might be hashtagging our way back to health as we speak.

If there's some truth to this map, we might be hashtagging our way back to health as we speak. CPOE.org

Of course, that probably also counts tweets like this:

So take those promising results with a grain of salt.

But there are more precise—and creepier—ways to keep track of who’s doing what. In fact, if you have a smartphone, you’re probably a data point. That’s thanks to a company called Unacast, which collects and analyzes data on human mobility using GPS location data.

Normally, Unacast uses its panoptic power to track people for, say, the travel and tourism industry, or marketing. But just for the pandemic, its experts have created a “pro-bono” social distancing scorecard for every state and county in the United States. Using our normal movements as a baseline, each region receives a letter grade for the average percent decrease in distance traveled since coronavirus became a thing. A 40 percent decrease or larger is an A. Anything less than a 10 percent decrease is an F.

You’ll be thrilled to know that we’re reportedly good students here in Minnesota. (Gov. Tim Walz was, Wednesday afternoon, as he announced the whole state should stay home the next couple weeks.) We’ve got an A, at a 42 percent travel decrease.

At the local level, things get more varied. Hennepin County is an overachiever, with a 54 percent decrease in distance traveled, as measured by our phones' GPS. Nobles, down in the southwest corner of the state, is sitting at 8 percent. But then, that’s without knowing how much its citizens were moving about in the first place. In places where people don’t commute as far, or as often, self-isolation could look a lot like business as usual.

As far as our neighbors go, Wisconsin earned itself a B, and Iowa and the Dakotas are all in C territory. Dead last among states is Wyoming, which earned an F with its 6 percent decrease.

Promising as our results may be, you may not be thrilled to know they exist—that someone is tracking whether or not you leave your house right now, and has been for quite some time. Unacast chief executive Thomas Walle tried to set people’s minds at ease in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

Walle said Unacast can only track your GPS data if you gave a certain apps permission to do so—and sell it to the highest bidder. (Picture those overly long “terms and conditions” screeds you agree to without reading.) He declined to name which apps those might be.

But he assured the Post the data they use is on an “aggregated level.” Unacast isn’t allowed to disclose what an individual person is doing at any given time.

Unacast is only one of the many private companies monitoring your whereabouts. Only last week, the Post reported the U.S. government was in talks with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies about potentially using their troves of location data to predict which areas will see more coronavirus cases in the near future.

Does that mean you should be deleting every app on your smartphone? Maybe. After all, these services are becoming increasingly important to staying in touch with loved ones and getting news during this stressful, lonely time—and public health experts could probably use that data if we’re going to get through this.

But you should pay more attention to those terms and conditions agreements from now on. 

Meanwhile, internet users are raising a few eyebrows at one app in particular: the FBI's FitTest app, which was promoted on Monday as a great way to get a workout while you're stuck inside. It also asks for access to your location, photos, storage, and network connections. 

We'll leave you with a few of Twitter's hottest takes on the subject.