UK telecom operators to share citizens’ location data with the government

With the recently-passed Coronavirus bill, the UK government has awarded itself with sweeping powers, one such being able to track the whereabouts of the British public.

A recent meeting between telecom providers and the government involved discussions around a collaboration that will enable the government to obtain mobile device locations of tens of millions of citizens. This could help the government to track crowd movement and identify the COVID-19 spread. This measure has already been tested in China and Israel to fight the pandemic.

As we all know, telecom operators have the ability to obtain location data of smartphones via their tracking ability. This, however, would have to be restricted to mass movements only and will not involve the separate tracking of individuals. Also, telecom operators and the government will need to ensure that the tracking activity will not fall foul of the existing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other privacy-oriented legislations.

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“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,” a spokesperson for O2 told Computer Weekly.

“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.”

Government access to citizens' location data may result in privacy violations

Toni Vitale, partner and head of data protection at JMW Solicitors, raised his concern in regards to this discussion. He said that even though the data provided by the operators will be compliant with the UK and EU data privacy laws, such actions may violate the human right to privacy.

“The Bill contains blank cheque powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. That could be any one of us. It contains sweeping powers to shut down even political assemblies, which could thwart the possibility of public protest against this power grab in the months ahead,” said Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch.

David Leslie, an ethicist at the Alan Turing Institute, told Science Mag that while "we live in this age that has been called the age of surveillance capitalism, where … our data is abused and exploited, authorities and the public will have to weigh the value of privacy against the possibility that data collection could save millions of lives."

According to The Washington Post, the US government is also discussing the possibility of obtaining anonymised smartphone location data of hundreds of millions of citizens from the likes of Google, Facebook and a number of major tech companies. Data obtained from private sector companies could be used to map the spread of the infection and form strategies to contain its spread any further.

"Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts," the Post noted.

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