More and more governments around the world are instituting measures to track movements of people in an effort to halt the coronavirus pandemic. Technological measures and phone data are being used to ensure that people are adhering to quarantine and social distancing requirements. Privacy advocates advise caution in using these technological measures to fight COVID-19.
In Europe Mobile Operators Share Data
Germany, Austria and Italy are some of the more recent countries to institute tracking measures for its citizens. Mobile carriers in these countries are sharing their data with health authorities to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. The mobile data is being used to monitor whether people are complying with lockdowns and to assess their effectiveness.
However, to remain compliant with Europe’s privacy laws and GDPR, these countries are using aggregated data. No individually identifiable data is being used, only anonymized data is being provided by the mobile operators.
For example, Austria’s largest mobile phone company, A1 Telekom Austria, is sharing data from its motion analysis tool developed by Invenium. The tool was developed to analyses how busy tourist sites might get and how people flows affect traffic congestion. However, the tool can just as easily be used to assess the effectiveness of social distancing measures. The tool is compliant to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which restricts the use of sensitive personal data without the owner’s explicit consent.
Technological Measures Used in the East
The approach taken in Europe is less invasive than the approach taken in countries like China, Taiwan and South Korea. In these countries smartphone location data is being used to enforce lockdowns. It is also being used to trace who an individual that has tested positive to the virus has had contact with.
In South Korea, applications have been developed, which all Koreans must download to their phones. These apps have been created ostensibly to help citizens stay safe. They provide users with real-time information on the most recent case reports and where these cases have occurred. They also provide users with information on how close they are at any given time to reported sites of infection.
However, the broadcasting of these case reports actually names and shames individuals infected with the coronavirus. The case reports essentially report infected individuals’ daily activities and their whereabouts at any given time to everyone.
GPS tracking applications have also been developed for use by the South Korean authorities. These are being used to ensure people don’t break quarantine restrictions. If someone moves beyond the area to which they have been restricted, then the app sounds an alarm to authorities.
Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong
Virus tracking in Singapore is being conducted through the use of data originating from ride-sharing apps. Taiwan authorities, on the other hand, are using cellphone tracking data. This data is being cross checked with national health insurance, immigration and customs databases to limit the spread of the virus across the island.
In Hong Kong, authorities are using electronic wristbands that connect to an app on users’ smartphones. The wristbands are being used to ensure that people remain quarantined at home and thus help decrease COVID-19’s spread.
China has deployed its extensive population surveillance capabilities to contain the spread of the virus. Apps, phone tracking, face recognition and even drones are being utilized to establish where individuals have been, when and with whom.
China has deployed an app, which is mandatory for all Chinese to install on their phones, to assess individuals’ quarantine status. The app lets users know whether their quarantine status is such that they are allowed to leave their home or not. It also tells them if they are allowed to use public transport.
The app provides each user with a color code depending on their quarantine status. Users need to show their color code to authorities when requested. Individuals with a “Green” code can move around the city freely. Individuals with “Yellow” are more restricted and individuals with “Red” are in full lockdown. The app also shares its data with the police.
The Arab World
In Israel, the government has given permission to security agencies to monitor mobile data of individuals believed to be infected with COVID-19. Location data gathered by mobile providers is given to health officials so that they can ascertain whether individuals are following quarantine requirements.
The US is in Talks with Tech Giants
A couple of days ago the Washington post reported that the “US government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus.”
The location data would be used to track whether people are keeping at safe distances from each other. Like Europe, the US is currently looking at using aggregated anonymized data to predict hotspots and analyse trends. It is not looking at tracking specific individuals.
Privacy Advocates Advise Caution
Digital technology is playing a major role in the fight against the coronavirus. However, privacy advocates warn of the dangers. The problem is striking the right balance between privacy and safety. How much privacy are people willing to give away for the sake of safety. How much power over their lives are people willing to give their governments while dealing with the current emergency?
Then there are more long-term questions. What will happen once the virus has subsided? Will authorities stop tracking phones, or will the surveillance continue?