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Google uses location data to show if people are social distancing amid coronavirus outbreak

The search giant says no personally identifiable information is made available at any point.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

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Google is releasing reports on people's movements during the coronavirus outbreak to help health officials make critical decisions to combat the pandemic. The company on Friday published an early release of its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which use anonymized location data collected from people's phones to chart movement trends. 

The reports, Google said, can offer "insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic." They show trends on movements at retail and recreation locations, like restaurants and shopping centers, as well as places like transit centers and residential areas. The reports initially cover 131 countries and regions, including all 50 states in the US, but Google said it plans to add more in the coming weeks. 

The reports are created with "aggregated, anonymized sets of data" from people who have the Location History setting turned on -- Google noted it's off by default -- on their phones. Google said "no personally identifiable information, like an individual's location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point."

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, has rapidly spread across the globe. The World Health Organization on March 11 declared the outbreak a pandemic. There are now over 1 million confirmed cases globally, with more than 245,000 in the US as of Friday.

Many cities and countries have imposed lockdowns to slow the spread of the disease. The US federal government has extended its social distancing guidelines to April 30. Major events have been called off or postponed, and many employees are being told to work from home, while others have been laid off

Google said the reports will show trends over several weeks, with the most recent data representing 48 to 72 hours prior. They will be available for a limited time. 

"These are unprecedented times and we will continue to evaluate these reports as we get feedback from public health officials, civil society groups, local governments and the community at large," wrote Google's Jen Fitzpatrick and Karen DeSalvo in a blog post Friday. "We hope these insights will add to other public health information that will help people and communities stay healthy and safe."

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives