Coronavirus: Operators Share Location Data With Health Authorities

Mobile operators are reportedly sharing location data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria, in an effort to fight the spread of the pandemic.

According to the Reuters report, certain operators are sharing data that shows whether people are complying with local curbs on movement, while at the same time respecting Europe’s strict privacy laws.

Privacy is achieved because the collected data is reported to be anonymous and aggregated. It is thought the data makes it possible to map concentrations and movements of mobile customers in ‘hot zones’ where Covid-19 has taken hold.

Image credit: World Health Organisation

Location tracking

This anonymous tracking of people’s movements is less intrusive than the steps taken in countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Those countries reportedly use smartphone location readings to trace the contacts of individuals who have tested positive or to enforce quarantine orders.

And according to Reuters, that Asian approach has shown impressive results.

But in privacy-conscious European, the emphasis is reportedly on monitoring compliance with population lockdowns to slow the pandemic.

Germany for example has closed schools and restaurants, and people have been told to work at home if they can.

Germany’s health czar Lothar Wieler told Reuters that the data donated by Deutsche Telekom offers insights into whether people are complying with these guidelines.

“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, reportedly 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 has seen a large increase in coronavirus cases, after they reportedly jumped by more than 1,000 overnight to 8,198. There have been 12 fatalities.

Meanwhile in Austria, which has imposed a nationwide lockdown, 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.

“With these data it is possible to visualize the movement flows of groups of people,” A1 spokesperson Livia Dandrea-Boehm reportedly said.

Italy crisis

But Italy remains one of the hardest hit European countries, with 31,506 cases and 2,503 deaths as of Wednesday 18 March 2020.

In that country, local operators including Telecom Italia, Vodafone and WindTre have offered authorities aggregated data to monitor people’s movements.

According to Reuters, the Lombardy region is using the data to see how many people are observing a strict lockdown.

The data shows that movements exceeding 300-500 meters are down by around 60 percent since 21 February, when the first case was discovered in the Codogno area.

“Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large, anonymized datasets,” CEO Nick Read said.

The use of anonymized data is said to be compliant with EU’s strict General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which restricts the processing of sensitive personal data without its owner’s explicit consent.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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