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UK Government Considers Tracking Mobile Phones to Help Tackle COVID-19

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The UK government is considering working with mobile operators in order to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

The mobile networks would provide the government with ‘properly anonymised’ location data from handsets such as smartphones and tablets.

Several countries are already utilising handset location data in order to handle the outbreak. Anonymised data can be harnessed to generate a heatmap of how the general population is moving around during the lockdown.

This map can then in turn be used to get a better idea of where resources need to be deployed, such as cleaning efforts or more targeted policing.

Some countries have gone further than general population tracking and have used more intrusive methods. For example, some countries have been monitoring individuals who have been ordered to isolate themselves.

It was inevitable that the government would at least consider using location data to combat the virus, but they’d need to be careful not to violate GDPR law.

Steve Wood, Deputy Commissioner of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), 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”.

Despite the supposed anonymity of the data being utilised, there are fears that such data could be combined with other sources of information in order to start identifying individuals.

Mark Jackson, chief editor of ISPreview, has concerns about the extent to which the government would use location data: “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.”

Harry Pererra
Harry Pererra

Harry turns on his experience in journalism and programming to write about the latest news in the world of tech and the environemtn. When he isn’t writing for usave he is working towards his Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and prefers dogs to cats.

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