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Coronavirus: UK mobile operators discuss sharing crowd movement data with government

Reports emerge of unprecedented cooperation between UK telcos and government to provide people-modelling data to prevent spread of coronavirus

In yet another example of how the coronavirus outbreak is changing the norms of the IT and telco world, the UK’s mobile network operators have revealed that they have been in discussion with the government regarding making available location data to track movements of people.

In the recently published Coronavirus Bill, the UK government has been given a raft of new powers that information freedom activists believe sweep away checks and balances on surveillance, but which could allow it to use commercial firms’ data regarding the location of users.

The rationale behind what would be an unprecedented collaboration between the UK government and mobile operators is that that the latter’s precise knowledge of mobile device locations could potentially help the government with modelling of crowd movements to track the spread of Covid-19. Such a principle has already been in use in China and Israel to mitigate spread of the virus.

While it is widely known that the operators have the capability to provide the necessary modelling support, Computer Weekly has learned that discussions between representatives of the telco community and the UK government have indeed taken place, but that they were at an early stage and that no agreements are in place as yet, nor has anything resembling a plan of action been scoped.

It would appear to be the case that whatever may or not be agreed going forward, any information delivered by any of the operators could never relate to an individual’s data, only very broad mass movements, and that any agreement of this nature would have to operate under existing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and privacy legislation.

A spokesperson for operator O2, which boasts the largest number of UK mobile subscribers, confirmed with Computer Weekly that discussions had indeed been undertaken, remarking: “We are fully engaged in helping in the fight against Covid-19. Besides zero-rating access to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK. Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.”

“Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the coronavirus might move”
O2 spokesperson

As well as misgivings from information freedom activists, the news of the talks has alerted the legal community as to potential breaches of the law. Toni Vitale, partner and head of data protection at JMW Solicitors, suggested that even though the data that may be handed over by operators is anonymised, meaning that its use is in compliance with UK and EU data privacy laws, such action may still be an infringement of the human right to privacy under the Human Rights Act and that a lot depends on how the data is used. 

“If [usage] is limited to creating heat maps showing where people are congregating, that might be OK. Some shopping centres already do this to show where shoppers are. This is useful to plan exits, where the cafes should be placed, and so on,” he observed.

“Location data is commonly scraped from mobiles without users being aware. UK mobile providers have also been asked to provide information services for the government, meaning important announcements could be sent via text message to the entire UK population or to specific areas. Some already use this for broadcasting messages for commercial and advertising purposes.”

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