Mobile carriers are sharing data with the health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria, helping to fight coronavirus by monitoring whether people are complying with curbs on movement while at the same time respecting Europe's privacy laws.
The data, which are anonymous and aggregated, make it possible to map concentrations and movements of customers in 'hot zones' where COVID-19 has taken hold.
That is less invasive than the approach taken by countries like China, Taiwan and South Korea, which use smartphone location readings to trace the contacts of individuals who have tested positive or to enforce quarantine orders.
The Asian approach has shown impressive results. In Europe, however, the emphasis is on monitoring compliance with lockdowns to slow the pandemic.
In Germany, where schools and restaurants are closing and people have been told to work at home if they can, the data donated by Deutsche Telekom offer insights into whether people are complying, health czar Lothar Wieler said.
"If people remain as mobile as they were until a week ago, it will be difficult to contain the virus," Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said on Wednesday.
Germany was entering the epidemic's exponential phase, Wieler added, warning that without progress in reducing person-to-person contacts, as many as 10 million people could be infected in two or three months.
Germany's coronavirus cases jumped by more than 1,000 overnight to 8,198. There have been 12 fatalities.
In Italy, mobile carriers Telecom Italia, Vodafone and WindTre have offered authorities aggregated data to monitor people's movements.
The Lombardy region is using the data to see how many people are observing a strict lockdown. Movements exceeding 300-500 metres (yards) are down by around 60% since Feb. 21, when the first case was discovered in the Codogno area, the data show.
"Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large, anonymised datasets," CEO Nick Read said.
Austria imposed a national lockdown after coronavirus spread among ski tourists in Tyrol who, as they headed home, have spread the infection across central and northern Europe.
Telekom Austria, operating under the A1 brand, is sharing results from a motion analysis application developed by Invenium, a spin-off from the Graz University of Technology.
The tool is compliant with EU privacy rulebook the General Data Protection Regulation, which restricts the processing of sensitive personal data without its owner's explicit consent.
"With these data it is possible to visualise the movement flows of groups of people," A1 spokesperson Livia Dandrea-Boehm said.
Source: Reuters 18 March, Milan & Berlin
Reporting: Douglas Busvine, Nadine Schimroszik & Paul Sandle