11 countries use smartphone data to track coronavirus spread

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Governments around the world are mobilizing all the surveillance tools available to them to help stem the spread of the new coronavirus. Countries have rushed to exploit the one tool that almost everyone has with us: our smartphones.

An index regularly updated by Top10VPN lists the reinforced security measures by country, among those which have already implemented measures to track the phones of patients with Covid-19, ranging from anonymous data to monitor the movements of people of more generally to the location of suspect patients and their contacts.

Other countries are likely to follow suit. The U.S. is said to be in talks with Facebook and Google to use anonymous location data to track the spread of the disease – although Mark Zuckerberg later denied the possibility. An influential British scientist in the UK has also approved such use of the data.

Samuel Woodhams, the digital rights officer at Top10VPN, warned that the world could slide into permanent heightened surveillance: “Without proper monitoring, these often very intrusive new measures risk becoming the norm worldwide”, a he told Business Insider.

“While some may appear entirely legitimate, many of them pose a risk to citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of expression. Given the speed with which things are changing, document the new measures is the first step in challenging possible undue hardship, allowing scrutiny and holding companies and governments to account.”

Some countries will frame their new emergency measures, but could keep this data for later use. “There is a risk that many of these new techniques will continue to be used after the epidemic,” said Samuel Woodhams.

“This is particularly important, as many of these new measures have been taken while avoiding public and political scrutiny, and do not include sunset clauses.” Here is a list of countries that have started tracking mobile data, with varying degrees of privacy breaches:

South Korea uses detailed information on where patients are

South Korea has gone a step further than other countries by tracking people’s phones and creating a publicly accessible map, where other citizens can check if they have crossed paths with Covid-19 patients . The tracking data that goes into the card is not limited to cell phone data: credit card records and even face-to-face interviews with patients are used to construct a retroactive map of where they have been.

The South Korean government is also using the card to proactively send regional messages warning people that they may have come into contact with someone who has the virus.

The location indicated can be extremely precise. The Washington Post reports that an SMS was sent saying that an infected person had been at the “Magic Coin Karaoke” in Jayang-dong at midnight on February 20.

Here is a message reported by The Guardian: “A woman in her sixties has just been tested positive. Click on the link to find out the places she visited before being hospitalized”.

Director of Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Jeong Eun-kyeong admitted that the card was an infringement of civil liberties: “It is true that there is a tendency to put more emphasis on the public interest only on human rights when it comes to diseases that can infect other people.”

The card is already interfering with civil liberties, as a South Korean woman told the Washington Post. She stopped going to an LGBT bar for fear of being exposed. “If I contract the virus without knowing it … this information will be disseminated throughout the country,” she regrets.

The system also poses other unexpected challenges. The Guardian reported that a man claiming to be infected threatened several restaurants, saying he would visit them and harm them if they didn’t give him money to stay away.

Iran asked its citizens to download an invasive application

Vice reports that the Iranian government has approved a Covid-19 diagnostic application that collects real-time location data from users. On March 3, a message was sent to millions of Iranian citizens telling them to install the application, called AC19, before going to a hospital or health center. The application claimed to be able to diagnose the user with Covid-19 by asking a series of questions. The app has since been removed from the Google Play store.

Israel adopted new laws to spy on its citizens

As part of a large package of new surveillance measures approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 17, the Israeli Security Agency will no longer have to obtain a court order to track individuals’ phones. The new law also stipulates that all data collected must be deleted after 30 days.

Benjamin Netanyahu himself called the new security measures “invasive” in a speech to the nation. “We are going to deploy measures that we have used only against terrorists. Some of these measures will be invasive, and will invade the privacy of those concerned,” he said.

Singapore has an application to find people who have been within 2 meters of infected patients

The Government of Singapore Technology Agency and the Ministry of Health launched a contact tracing application called TraceTogether on March 20. The application is used, according to Straits Times , “to identify people who have been close – within 2 meters for at least 30 minutes – to patients with the coronavirus, using Bluetooth wireless technology”. “No geolocation or other personal data is collected,” said TraceTogether in an explanatory video (below).

Taiwan Can Know When Quarantined People Left Their Home

Authorities in Taiwan have activated what they call an ” electronic fence “, which tracks data from cell phones and alerts authorities when someone who is believed to be quarantined at home leaves their home. “The goal is to keep people from running around and spreading the infection,” said Jyan Hong-wei, head of the Taiwanese cyber security department. He added that local authorities and the police should be able to respond to anyone who raises an alert within 15 minutes.

Austria uses anonymous data to map movement of people

On March 17, Austria’s largest telecommunications network operator, Telekom Austria AG, announced that it was sharing anonymous location data with the government. The technology used was developed by a start-up from the University of Graz. Telekom Austria explains that it is usually used to measure attendance at popular tourist sites.

Samuel Woodhams told Business Insider US that while collecting anonymous data is less invasive than other measures, it should be a source of concern about how it might be used in the future: data can still be threatened by re-identification, and this allows governments to track the movements of large groups of citizens.”

Poland forces quarantined people to send selfies to prove they are at home

On March 20, the Polish government announced the release of a new application called “Home Quarantine”. Its purpose is to ensure that people who are supposed to quarantine for 14 days stay at home. To use the application, you must first register a selfie, then respond to periodic requests for geolocated selfies. If the user does not execute within 20 minutes, the police will be alerted.

“People in quarantine have a choice: either receive unexpected visits from the police, or download this app,” said a spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Digital. The Polish government automatically generates accounts for people suspected of being quarantined, including those returning from abroad.

Belgium uses anonymous data from telecom operators

The Belgian government gave the green light on March 11 to start using anonymous data from local telecommunications companies.

Germany models the movements of its population

Deutsche Telekom announced on March 18 that it will share data with the Robert Koch Institute (the German epidemiological agency). “This allows us to model the way people move nationally, at the state level and even at the community level,” a Deutsche Telekom spokesperson told Die Welt.

Italy has mapped the movements of its population

Italy, which has been particularly affected by the Covid-19 epidemic, has also signed an agreement with telecommunications operators for the collection of anonymous location data. As of March 18, Italy has accused 40,000 of its citizens of breaching containment, according to The Guardian.

UK not yet monitoring displacement, but plans to do so

Although nothing official has yet been announced, the UK is in talks with its major telecommunications providers, including O2 and EE, to provide large anonymous data sets. Google has also indicated that it is taking part in the discussions.

Like other European democracies, the UK plans to use anonymous data to track the wider pattern of movement of people.


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The article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by Ordo News staff in our US newsroom press.