Mobile phone industry explores worldwide tracking of users
25th March 2020
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The mobile phone industry has 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 Covid-19.

The Guardian has learned that a senior official at GSMA, an international standard-setting body for the mobile phone industry, held discussions with at least one company that is capable of tracking individuals globally through their mobile devices, and discussed the possible creation of a global data-sharing system.

Any move to create such a global tracking system would represent a major escalation in efforts to use mobile phone location data to help stem the pandemic, and would be likely to raise concerns among privacy and security experts.

Until now the use of mobile phone tracking in the fight against Covid-19 has been restricted to national governments, which are either monitoring data within their borders or in discussions with mobile operators and technology companies about doing so.

They include the US, India, Iran, Poland, Singapore, Israel and South Korea. The British government is engaged in talks with BT, the owner of the UK mobile operator EE, about using phone location and usage data to determine the efficacy of isolation orders.

The concept of an international mobile tracing scheme would go further, enabling authorities to monitor movements and potentially track the spread of the disease across borders. The GSMA represents the interests of 750 mobile phone operators and vendors across the world and helps set international standards for companies.

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A person familiar with its exploratory talks said they were at an early stage and that decisions had not yet been made about whether to move ahead with the plan. The aim of such a global network would be to enact “contact tracing”, enabling authorities to use mobile location data to track who a person infected with Covid-19 may have come in contact with.

A spokesperson for GSMA strenuously denied it was currently involved in any project to create a global tracking system. “We are not involved in a project of this nature,” the GSMA spokesperson said. However the GSMA also said it would not comment on discussions that had taken place or ideas that were being explored.

“In this emergency situation, the GSMA and its members are doing everything they can to help the global fight against Covid-19,” Mats Granryd, the director of the GSMA, said in a statement emailed to the Guardian. “We are engaging with operators, policymakers and international organisations around the world to explore viable mobile big data and AI solutions to fight this pandemic while adhering to principles of privacy and ethics.”

Advocates of using mobile phone technology in medical emergencies say accurate and up-to-date information can be a vital tool.

The Washington Post reported last week that the US government was in active talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies and health experts about how location data from Americans’ phones could be used to fight the pandemic. The report suggested public health experts were interested in anonymous aggregate data that could help map the spread of the virus.

The emergency measures approved by the Israeli government last week go further, enabling authorities to track individual people suspected or confirmed to have been infected to notify individuals who may have come into contact with them. They also allow phones to be used to enforce strict quarantine rules.

The proposed UK scheme would involve anonymised mobile phone data being used to monitor whether coronavirus limitation measures such as asking the public to stay at home are working. It could also be used to send health alerts. While the information provided on geographical movement would be delayed by 12 to 24 hours, British privacy campaigners have raised concerns over the scheme, calling for “radical transparency” in the way the government uses mobile data.

One telecommunications expert, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said GSMA would be capable of creating a global data-sharing network if mobile operators around the world agreed to share usage information. That data would then be used to help authorities visualise the spread of the disease, or to track individual subscribers to perform “contact tracing”, using an individual’s location to detect how the disease might spread.

Coronavirus map: how Covid-19 cases are spreading across the world

David Kaye, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said it was not necessarily a bad thing for governments to use technology as a means to help control the virus. But he said there were important rule of law standards that had to be taken into account if emergency measures were put in place, including the possible tracking of individuals by mobile phone companies.

He said these included alerting individuals whose data was being tracked, being fully transparent about the data collection and subjecting any such initiatives to judicial oversight. He also said there should be sunset provisions in place and continuously reviewed so that emergency measures did not become permanent.

“When I think about how these tools can be helpful, making sure they are adhering to basic standards is really important,” Kaye said.

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