Apple’s COVID-19 mobility trends site provides useful location data while protecting your privacy

The site aims to help public health authorities see where people are reducing travel while still protecting your privacy.

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Apple has launched a new site, apple.com/covid19/mobility, that uses data pulled from Apple Maps requests to show “mobility trends” for various regions. The aim is to help public health officials to understand where people are taking heed to shelter-in-place orders or guidelines and where they are not.

Anyone can go to the site and search for info from many major cities along with 63 countries or regions. Some cities or regions may not show up because Apple doesn’t have enough data to ensure accurate trends.

What about privacy?

Those who don’t read beyond headlines before mouthing off on social media are already complaining about privacy. Doesn’t Apple say it don’t track its users’ location history? Isn’t Apple Maps supposed to be private? How can they do this?

Apple explains how it all works, and yes, it does protect your privacy.

When you use Apple Maps, your location history is not recorded by Apple (it lives only on your personal device, encrypted), and your requests are not associated with your Apple ID. But when you ask Maps for directions, check traffic data, or search for local businesses, it has to transmit that info over the internet.

To protect your privacy, Apple associates those requests with a unique identifier (a string of letters and numbers). It doesn’t know who it belongs to—it’s not associated with a specific Apple ID or personally identifiable data. This lets Apple track things like what kinds of requests are made and how often, but without having any way to associate it with particular users. Because the identifiers change and reset often, they can’t even build up a history of your request to infer your identity by looking at things like your travel patterns.

In other words, Apple knows “a user requested directions from here to there” or “a user searched for pizza” but it doesn’t know which specific user made those requests and doesn’t even have enough data to figure it out over the course of many requests.

What the new COVID-19 site shows is the number of requests for directions made in each region, along with the mode of transport (driving, walking, or public transit). The site does not contain info on the start or end points of the directions requests, and as explained above Apple doesn’t even have data on who made the requests.

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