Watchdog approves use of UK phone data if it helps fight coronavirus

The UK’s privacy watchdog has said the government can use personal data from people’s mobile phones to track and monitor behaviour if it helps fight the spread of coronavirus.

It emerged last week that the government was in talks with UK mobile phone companies to potentially use anonymous location and usage data to create movement maps, with a 12- to 24-hour delay, to discover whether the public are abiding by lockdown rules.

Governments such as China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Israel have gone much further, with active surveillance measures including the use of personal data and making infected people download a smartphone app to reveal their movements and contacts.

Other countries with versions of tracking apps include Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Poland.

While there is no suggestion the UK government will embrace such measures – although there have been reports it is developing a smartphone app – the Information Commissioner’s Office said the severity of the coronavirus outbreak could warrant the use of personal data to help contain it.

“The important thing is that data protection is not a barrier to sharing data,” said a ICO spokeswoman, responding to the question of potentially nationwide mobile phone monitoring. “Public bodies may require additional collection and sharing of personal data to protect against serious threats to public health. Data protection law enables the data sharing in the public interest and provides the safeguards for data that the public would expect.”

The ICO usually acts as the privacy regulator, fining companies ranging from British Airways to the hotel chain Marriott hundreds of millions of pounds for breaching rules relating to customers’ personal data.

Earlier this month, the ICO said data protection and electronic communication laws did not stop the government, NHS or any other health professionals from sending public health messages to people by phone, text or email.

However, after the emergence of the government’s potential mobile phone data monitoring plan, British privacy campaigners have raised concerns.

They said individuals should be alerted if their personal data was being used, there should be judicial oversight, and there must be “sunset” provisions so such activity cannot become a permanent tactic.

“The safety and security of the public remains our primary concern,” said the ICO spokeswoman. “The ICO and our colleagues in the public sector have this at the forefront of our minds at this time and we are here to help.”

Earlier this week it emerged that the mobile phone industry had explored the creation of a global data-sharing system that could track individuals around the world, as part of an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The aim of the global network would be to enact “contact tracing” to identify who someone with the virus may have come into contact with.

The Washington Post reported last week that the US government was in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies and health experts about how location data from Americans’ phones could be used to fight the pandemic. The report suggested public health experts were interested in anonymous aggregate data that could help map the spread of the virus.

The emergency measures approved by the Israeli government last week went further, enabling authorities to track individuals suspected or confirmed to have been infected and to notify those they may have come into contact with. They also allow phones to be used to enforce strict quarantine rules.

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