Major telcos will hand over phone location data to the EU to help track coronavirus

Governments around the world are desperately trying to stem the spread of the coronavirus, as confirmed cases climb over 400,000 and the death toll surpasses 18,000. Now, the European Union is turning to phone tracking to help manage the crisis.

As reported by Reuters, eight telecommunications companies have agreed to provide the European Commission with mobile phone location data in order to track the spread of the coronavirus. The participating companies are Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Telia, A1 Telekom Austria, and Vodafone.

The agreement came on Wednesday, just days after the European Union’s Internal Market and Services Commissioner Thierry Breton urged the companies to hand over the data. 

“We will select one big operator by country,” said Brenton, confirming to POLITICO he had made the request in a conference call on Monday. “We want to be very fast and follow this on a daily basis.”

Brenton stated the data would also be used to deduce where medical supplies are most needed to deal with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and these are most definitely extraordinary times. Even so, concerns remain regarding privacy and Big Brother-type surveillance — particularly as it’s much easier to implement such measures than to roll them back.

“The [European Data Protection Supervisor] stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone,” EDPS head Wojciech Wiewiorowski wrote in a letter seen by Reuters.

To address this anxiety, an EU official told Reuters the Commission will use anonymised data and aggregate location data. Further, the data will be deleted once the health crisis has passed. 

Still, our global history of data security has been less than stellar, and studies have proven people can be re-identified even from anonymous data. It’s also understandable some are apprehensive of political organisations tracking people’s locations, regardless of the initial reasoning behind it. State surveillance and violation of privacy are very real concerns, even though there are bigger, more immediate ones right now.

Mashable has reached out to participating companies and global mobile operator lobbying group GSMA for comment, and will update if we hear back.

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