British Telecom Tracking Citizen Movement During Virus

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BT Group, UK’s largest provider of mobile, broadband, and fixed-line services, confirmed yesterday it’s using infrastructure to track movement of the country’s citizens. This announcement by the telecom giant comes just days after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s privacy watchdog, said the government can legally use personal data from people’s mobile phones to track and monitor behavior if it helps fight the spread of coronavirus.

Computer Business Review reported a BT spokesperson said, “We are providing a limited amount of aggregated, anonymized data that show generalized patterns in the movement of people to assist with policy planning. As always, we are strictly mindful of the privacy of our customers, whilst making sure we do everything that might help the medical authorities in the fight against coronavirus.” 

In a statement by ICO’s deputy commissioner Steve Wood last week, use of technology to gather such data is legal “if the data is properly anonymized and aggregated.” In other words, if individuals are not identified, there is no breach of privacy laws, as it is in the U.S.. 

Richard Helson, head of the Chorus Intelligence UK, told the Review it appeared the government would be getting, “only the cell tower location, not the physical location of the device.” According to Helson, understanding virus transmission from one person to the next would require augmenting cell tower location with other data points such as bank card activity or using automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to track vehicle movement.

As the world struggles to fight the spread of COVID-19, discussions, speculation, and rumors about data tracking have been pervasive.

South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety is using a GPS application to keep people in touch with healthcare resources and to send alerts to people if they come within 100 meters of a location known to have been visited by an infected person.  

Israel’s government is tracking the movements of its citizens who tested positive for COVID-19 by using technology that the Israeli Security Service (Shin Bet) used for counter-terrorism operations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu said,  “The Cabinet will approve emergency regulations that will enable the use of digital means in the war on Corona…the Attorney General acceded to our request and this evening we will approve the use of digital tools for a limited period of 30 days. Israel is a democracy. We must preserve the balance between individual rights and general needs, and we are doing so.”

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