The UK is in talks to use phone location data to monitor COVID-19 but seems to be stopping short of spying on individuals

Boris Johnson phone

JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson uses a mobile phone as he walks through buildings inside the Houses of Parliament

  • The UK government is in discussions with tech firms and mobile networks about using location data to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Other countries are using smartphone location data to monitor coronavirus patients and people they have had contact with - but the UK isn't doing anything this invasive right now.
  • Instead, the UK seems to be discussing how anonymised and aggregated data might help track at a general level how people are moving around.
  • Google told Business Insider: "We're exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19."
  • The UK government has refused to clarify whether it's considering using data to track individuals later down the line.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The UK government is exploring how it can use smartphone location data to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak, but looks to be stopping short of invasive tracking of individual coronavirus patients.

According to statements given to Business Insider, Google and Three are among the tech and telecommunications firms taking part in the talks. The Guardian reported O2 and BT, which owns mobile network EE, are also in discussions.
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Google would not go into detail about specific talks but said it was looking at how "anonymised, aggregated" data might help governments. A spokeswoman said: "We're exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19.

"One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps. This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual's location, movement, or contacts."

Google said the work is in the early stages and that it had not shared any aggregated, anonymized data with the government to date.
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Google said it had had queries about the more invasive practice of contact tracing, or tracking individuals, but said it didn't have the appropriate data for this.

Countries around the world have introduced contact tracing to tackle COVID-19, using smartphone location data to monitor actual or suspected coronavirus patients and send warning messages to those they have been in contact with.Israel enabled the measures by bringing in emergency laws on Tuesday, causing consternation among privacy activists. South Korea has been using contact tracing to send out emergency alerts, detailing patients' gender, age, and other details. Though the country doesn't name patients, privacy activists say individuals may be identifiable from such detailed information.
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The government won't say if it's exploring the more invasive contact tracing for the future

Police officers and soldiers check passengers leaving from Milan main train station, Italy, Monday, March 9, 2020. Italy took a page from China's playbook Sunday, attempting to lock down 16 million people - more than a quarter of its population - for nearly a month to halt the relentless march of the new coronavirus across Europe. Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte signed a quarantine decree early Sunday for the country's prosperous north. Areas under lockdown include Milan, Italy's financial hub and the main city in Lombardy, and Venice, the main city in the neighboring Veneto region. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Associated Press

Italy has used aggregated data to track people's movements in Lombardy, which has been severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

The UK's Department of Health declined to comment on Thursday on whether it was exploring contact tracing, or even whether it was in discussions with tech and telecoms firms.

The UK's chief scientist, Patrick Vallance, said in a committee hearing earlier this week that it was still a possibility and such measures would have been useful earlier in the disease's outbreak.
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Tech and telecoms firms have indicated that what is under discussion is less invasive - using aggregated data to create maps that indicate at a general level how people are responding to social distancing advice, or moving around during the crisis.

Vodafone on Wednesday issued a general statement saying: "It may become increasingly important for governments to understand people's movements to contain the spread of the virus, especially inside and to/from areas under quarantine.

"Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large anonymised data sets."
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Both Vodafone and Google have produced heat maps for the Lombardy region in Italy, which is among the most severely impacted by the virus, based on aggregated data so the government can understand people's movements. Vodafone told The Guardian it had not been approached by the UK government yet.

Three did not give details on any plans, but said in a statement to BI: "We are committed to helping fight the spread of the coronavirus and are in discussions with government on how best we can assist."

O2 told Business Insider it was engaged in helping the government, but said it would not identify or map out individuals. The Guardian also reported that EE owner BT was in talks with the government on using anonymised data to map people's movements.
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BT told The Guardian: "In relation to the use of mobile data, we are still actively exploring possibilities. As always, we are mindful of the privacy of our customers, while making sure we do everything that might help the medical authorities in the fight against coronavirus."

EE and Vodafone have not yet responded to Business Insider's request for comment.Business Insider also approached Facebook for comment. The firm said it was working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to use aggregated data to inform disease prevention maps, which aggregates anonymised information on people's movements.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explicitly denied reports earlier this week that the firm was considering sharing smartphone location data with the US government.

UK privacy activists remain concerned the government could still introduce contact tracing, and criticized its lack of transparency.

"As far as we know, there has been nothing from @10DowningStreet on data, what new measures are needed," wrote Open Rights Group director Jim Killock on Twitter. "Yet data is central to tackling COVID-19. There is a gaping hole in government announcements, but work is clearly going on."
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