CoronaCam: UK’s ICO approves the use of phone data to help fight Covid-19

April 19, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), UK’s privacy watchdog, stated the government can legally use people’s personal data from mobile phones for tracking purposes to fight spreading the coronavirus.

What does this mean?

The primary function of the ICO is to protect the privacy of consumers, having previously imposed million pound fines on Mariott and British Airways for data breaches. The ICO’s announcement has come after the government revealed its interest in using mobile phones to observe people’s compliance with social distancing guidelines.

Initially, the government was in talks with BT (the owner of UK mobile operator EE) about using phone data to create “movement maps”, to reveal whether people were following governmental advice and avoiding bars, pubs and restaurants.

The maps of groups and individuals would have a 12 to 24 hour delay to real time. They would be used by law enforcement to monitor behaviour and enforce lockdowns. It would also be used to track asymptomatic carriers of the disease in specific cities, and aid in decision making by health services to focus testing on the people exposed.

The ICO further justified use of the data in this manner, stating if it is kept anonymous, use of location data will not fall within the scope of data protection law, as no individual is identified. As a result, if appropriate safeguards are in place, privacy laws will not be breached.

What's the big picture effect?

Using personal mobile data to “contact trace” raises a conflict between the need for mass surveillance to curb the spread of Covid-19, and the need to obtain people’s consent and protect their privacy on data that can be used to pinpoint their exact location. Advocates of privacy say using personal data for surveillance will need clear time limits, to prevent the government from spying on individuals after the pandemic is over.

As the coronavirus is an emergency at a global scale, using this data anonymously could be used to build a collective crowd intelligence for good. This is so long as any map or applications use a transparent, auditable algorithm, with sufficient protections on consumer data. This is largely dependent on the social responsibility of the UK government.

Several countries have already taken similar measures in difficult ways. China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Israel have been stringent, by making infected patients download an app to reveal their contacts and movements. Israel, Austria and the US are also in active talks with technology companies for a ‘track and trace’ model based on highly individualised data.

It remains to be seen how the UK government will respond, and whether it will prioritise privacy and data protection while fighting the coronavirus.

Report written by Evania D’souza

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