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Government Considers COVID-19 Tracking of UK Mobile Phones

Monday, March 30th, 2020 (1:34 pm) - Score 3,821

The UK Government appears to be considering an idea that could see them attempt to monitor the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) by working with mobile network operators (e.g. Three UK, Vodafone, BT (EE) and O2) to track the location data of handsets (Smartphones etc.), but it’ll only be able to use “properly anonymised” data.

At present a number of other countries are already tracking mobiles as part of efforts to tackle the virus. The data itself, once suitably anonymised, can be used for general population tracking, which makes it easier to build up a picture (heatmap) of how people are behaving during the lockdown (e.g. social distancing and travel patterns etc.). This could also be used to, for example, target policing or cleaning efforts toward problem areas.

However, some countries have gone a step beyond this, such as by adopting a more intrusive approach and using the data almost like personal police tags (e.g. monitoring newly arrived foreigners or individuals who have been ordered into self-quarantine for 14 days).

Inevitably the UK Government was bound to consider making use of the same information, which has now been confirmed by a legal opinion from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). But they’d still need to keep within the allowable confines of the current data protection (GDPR) law.

Steve Wood, ICO Deputy Commissioner, said:

“Generalised location data trend analysis is helping to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Where this data is properly anonymised and aggregated, it does not fall under data protection law because no individual is identified.

In these circumstances, privacy laws are not breached as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place.

The ICO has provided advice about how data protection law can continue to apply flexibly to protect lives and data. The safety and security of the public remains our primary concern. We will continue to work alongside Government to provide advice about the application of data protection law during these unprecedented times.”

In normal times such activity might be considered chilling, although these are not normal times and the wider public may show more acceptance of such tracking, provided the data is anonymised and doesn’t continue beyond the end of the current crisis. Nevertheless there are fears that even anonymised data can be used to identify people, such as when combined with other information sources.

At this stage the Government hasn’t been clear about their plans, although we hope they don’t go down the path of trying to track every individual and using it as a platform to issue fines or warnings. Location data from mobile phones lacks context and so may struggle to accurately represent the reason for somebody’s movements outside the home (e.g. going to work, delivering food to a vulnerable individual, funerals etc.).

More to the point it would be easy to circumvent by simply switching off your mobile.

Leave a Comment
17 Responses
  1. Avatar joe

    Korea has done a lot of good work with public data of where cases are.

    “But they’d still need to keep within the allowable confines of the current data protection (GDPR) law”

    GDPR is idiotic. If need be it can, and should, be set aside via the CCA.

    • Avatar dave

      GDPR is frustrating due to its complexity but I wouldn’t call it idiotic and I don’t believe it should be set aside unless there is no other reasonable way to achieve the goal.

    • Avatar joe

      In normal times it can be a bureaucratic nightmare and impose absurd regulations on small groups in particular that really don’t need it. But in a pandemic data sharing data is vital and GDPR will cost lives.

    • Avatar dave

      Yes data sharing is vital … but is it vital that _personalised_ data be shared?

    • Avatar joe

      One of the ways that the CV has been contained elsewhere has been the ability to see every case and its location/residence inc using phones to track movement and alert others to potential exposure in public places so they could be tested. thats simply impossible to do in the same way with our data protection.

  2. Avatar David H

    Have they considered extending this idea to use phones to track people with blue or brown eyes, perhaps they would like to track particular religious or ethics groups so they can be rounded up, fined or confined to ‘holding areas’?
    I joke, but this has nothing to do with tracking Covid-19 and everything to do with surveillance opportunism.
    How do they propose to assign a correct one to one correspondence between phones and infection or between phones and religious belief. Perhaps other comments here can explain?

    • Avatar dave

      Paranoia is alive and well even in a time of global crisis.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      It isn’t about building a correspondence between an individual phone and infection (or any other attribute), it is about building a picture of how the population overall is moving around. How far do people travel, and how often. It can answer questions such as to what degree is social distancing being observed, and what is the correlation between population movements and infection rates.

    • Avatar Phil

      In principle this is nothing new. Vodafone have been providing anonymised movement data for many years to TomTom to track traffic jams. In more recent times all of us using Google Maps have been feeding back our movements to Google for their traffic monitoring and re-routing on their maps.

    • Avatar Timeless

      on the one hand this idea could be quite useful in mapping cases and infection rates, but the point l think David is trying to make is “do we trust our government enough to not abuse the system once Coronavirus has been dealt with”.

      the Tories are opportunists whom l personally believe once this situation is dealt with will more than likely use such emergency legislation to continue to keep such abilities open for use for other purposes, granted it might sound like lm part of the tin hat crew but it isnt so far fetched when you consider our information is worth lots of money.

  3. Avatar Mike

    I thought GCHQ does this already or are they still pretending they don’t?

  4. Avatar Laurence "GreenReaper" Parry

    The simple solution is to make switching off your phone illegal, as is being done in Taiwan: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-52017993

    Now you know why Tom Nook was handing them out! http://www.savestatecomic.com/comic/the-island/

    • Avatar dave

      Nowhere does it state that it’s illegal to have your mobile turned off, just that if it is, they will check up on you.

      Breaking the quarantine IS illegal, quite rightly IMO.

      Also note that they don’t track everybody like this, just those in quarantine.

  5. Avatar sentup.custard

    “More to the point it would be easy to circumvent by simply switching off your mobile.”
    Mine is hardly ever switched on! I only ever use it when I’m meeting someone who isn’t local, so that they can call me if there’s a major hold-up.
    Furthermore, the phone was purchased secondhand from a shop who just took the cash and gave me a receipt without asking for my name, address, etc. The PAYG SIM card was obtained from a newsagent, again with no personal info required, and it’s only ever topped up (about once every two or three years) by a voucher paid for in cash, so there is no record of the phone being mine.
    GCHQ must hate me.

    • Avatar Peter

      There was one Far Eastern country that passed a law that all owners of payg numbers must provide their full verified ID to enable the phone to be linked to them by a certain date – or the network was ordered to disconnect the phone.

  6. Avatar t0m5k1

    Even if this becomes law that app is not going on my phone.

  7. Avatar nicolas Oberdorfer

    What are the side effects?

    To fight Covid-19, we could use a few more technologies. However, we should not rush to technological solutions that could cause unintended side effects. Exciting about this is the interview with the head of technology at Microsoft – he thinks that face recognition should be the last department we attack:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvJPW2VW69M&t=2s

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