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European telcos to give user data to EU to help stop coronavirus

Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange are among the network providers that have agreed to share phone data with the EU to track the spread of COVID-19.  

The European Commission will aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the illness, an EU official said. 

The companies involved, which also include Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria, met with EU industry chief Thierry Breton on Monday.   

It’s hoped the anonymised data will map movements of Europeans with the objective of ‘coordinating crisis response’. 

As well as being anonymised, the data will be deleted once the crisis is over, the EU official said, adding that the EU plan is not about centralising mobile data, nor about policing people.

While anonymised data falls outside the scope of EU data protection laws, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said the project does not breach privacy rules as long as there are safeguards.

‘The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings,’ said European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski in a letter to an executive at the Commission’s information and communications branch. 

‘It would also be preferable to limit access to the data to authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science,’ he said.

However, Wiewiorowski also warned about the possibility of such measures becoming permanent.

‘The EDPS often stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone,’ he said in the letter. 

‘I would like to stress that such solution should be still recognised as extraordinary.’

Wiewiorowski also said it would be ‘preferable’ to limit access to the data to authorised experts in data protection, data science and spatial epidemiology – the practice of mapping health data by geographic regions. 

Worries about governments’ use of technology to monitor those in quarantine and track infections have intensified in recent weeks over possible privacy violations, with some raising the spectre of state surveillance. 

Singapore, Taiwan, Italy and Israel are all using various methods of collecting user phone data as part of counter-COVID-19 measures.  

Israel’s health ministry released a smartphone app at the weekend that takes location data from user phones in an attempt to determine if they might have been exposed to the virus. 

The ‘Shield’ app for iOS and Android, compares location data from users’ phones to information collected about the location history of those confirmed to have coronavirus during the 14 days before their diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is using a mobile phone-based ‘electronic fence’ program that uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

Taiwanese police will be alerted within 15 minutes if someone is caught outside quarantine, who can be fined up to T$1 million (£28,218). 

A security expert in the UK told MailOnline that as pandemics hit, ‘the rulebooks go out the window’.

‘These announcements would have tremendously worried me if I had heard this a few months ago, but right now, it is a step forward in the fight to combat the disease,’ said Jake Moore, who has a background investigating computer crime in digital forensics.  

‘Sharing data is vital in this situation right now and offering it up could help save lives.

‘There will be a risk of this data being exploited in the future but this is something to consider once we are out of this mess.’

UK researchers have also released a free app this week that records user symptoms, as well as year of birth, sex, email address and postcode, in an effort to track the spread of the virus. 

The ‘Covid Symptom Tracker’ has been downloaded about 1.25 million times since its release on Tuesday morning.  

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