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Watchdog approves use of UK phone data to help fight coronavirus

Guardian Technology 27 Mar 2020 10:02
A text message on coronavirus sent by the UK government. Talks are being held with mobile phone operators over the use of location data. Photograph: Russell Boyce/Reuters

The UK’s privacy watchdog has said the government can legally 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 an 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.”

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.

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