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Group Raises Privacy Concerns Over Kansas' Use Of Cellphone GPS Data

Hugo Phan

TOPEKA -- Kansas' top health official faced questions Thursday over the state's monitoring of GPS data gleaned from people's cellphones about how residents have cut down on travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state Department of Health and Environment, has cited the data in at least two briefings and has used it to publicly scold Kansas residents for not taking social distancing seriously enough. The information is provided by data-analysis firm Unacast on a publicly accessible website that grades states and counties on social distancing based on how much they've reduced their travel.

A public-interest law firm, the Kansas Justice Institute, is demanding that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly provide more information about how the information is collected and used, expressing concerns about privacy and other civil liberties.

The law firm is a subsidiary of the free-market, small-government Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank that is influential among conservatives in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Justice Institute also sent copies of its letter to legislative leaders and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Samuel MacRoberts, its general counsel, said the state so far has been "circumspect" in moving to contain the COVID-19 threat, but the disclosure of the use of Unacast data was a surprise, and, "the details matter."

"There's definitely concerns on privacy," said state Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican. "We need answers."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, cited Unacast data on March 24 in praising his state's social distancing. That was a day before he issued a stay-at-home order. A similar order from Kelly took effect Monday.

Unacast said in a statement Thursday that it uses aggregated mobility and anonymous data from tens of millions of devices, but, "Our data is always in aggregate or anonymized and never shows individuals behavior."

The data measures how much people collectively have reduced travel from normal and gives each state and county a letter grade. The latest grade for Kansas is a C-minus, with 18 of its 105 counties, mostly in western Kansas, receiving an F.

Norman said the message isn't that the state is watching its residents, but that it wants "to give people feedback."

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