Covid-19: Location data to gauge lockdowns tests Europe’s love of privacy

  • Technology
  • Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020

A police car sits at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy. While personal privacy is sacrosanct in Europe, citizens may be willing to forgo strict adherence to those protections if it can help the region battle one its biggest crises since World War II. — Bloomberg

Officials in Austria and Italy are starting to use location data transmitted by mobile phones to determine the effectiveness of their coronavirus lockdowns.

Telekom Austria AG, the country’s biggest telecom network operator, is providing "anonymised data” to relevant authorities, according to a statement late Tuesday.

The tracking technology, developed by Invenium Data Insights GmbH in Austria’s southern city of Graz, was previously used to analyse travel patterns.

Vodafone Group Plc said in a statement it’s providing Italian officials with anonymised customer data to track and analyse population movements in the hard-hit Lombardy region, where people are in lockdown.

The countries are the latest on a growing list of nations using mobile phones to help contain the pandemic. Companies in China, Israel and Vietnam are also using data and applications to keep track of the disease. In the US, Alphabet Inc’s Google is developing a platform that includes user location.

Operators have to tread carefully as European countries have some of the world’s strictest rules around the use and sharing of mobile phone location data. The data yielded by these initiatives won’t be as granular as that provided by Israel’s NSO Group Ltd.

The company, known for its spyware, is working with about a dozen countries to test its technology to track the mobile phones of infected people. That information can then be matched with location data of other citizens to determine the potential for contamination.

The technology being used in Austria is normally used to track where tourists go after they visit an important destination, according to the Telekom Austria statement. It is "offered by a large number of companies across Europe and has been tested for years”.

Tracking tensions

The tracking tools could combine some of the most sensitive types of information companies could collect about individuals. Location data points can divulge where a person lives or whether they are attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for instance, while information about someone’s health could lead to discrimination at work.

While the companies say they will anonymise the data so no individual can be identified, research often shows otherwise. A joint study by Imperial College London and the University of Louvain in Belgium published in August showed how anonymised datasets can be traced back to individuals by way of reverse engineering using machine learning.

Europe mandates companies to seek explicit consent from users in most cases before processing any personal data as well as setting high standards for data anonymisation. Running afoul of those rules could cost them as much as 4% of global annual revenue. While personal privacy is sacrosanct in Europe, citizens may be willing to forgo strict adherence to those protections if it can help the region battle one its biggest crises since World War II.

Invenium estimates that movement in Austria has fallen by half since lockdown measures took effect this week, co-founder Michael Cik told state broadcaster ORF. Representatives for the company didn’t respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Vodafone is also offering governments the ability to send texts to people living in areas that have been hit by the coronavirus. The company operates in 24 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. – Bloomberg

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