Mobile carriers in Europe will share location data to fight spread of COVID-19

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Tracking location data could make it easier to track spread of coronavirus.
Photo: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Europe is usually one of the most proactive markets when it comes to user privacy. But there’s nothing usual about the current coronavirus crisis.

Because of that, eight big telecoms providers in Europe have reportedly agreed to share mobile phone location data with officials to track the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, Telecom Italia , Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria all met with European Commission officials this Monday, a report published Wednesday claims.

A Reuters report notes that:

“The Commission will use anonymised data to protect privacy and aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the virus, an EU official said.

To further assuage privacy concerns, the data will be deleted once the crisis is over, the official said, adding that the EU plan is not about centralising mobile data nor about policing people.”

Any initiative such as this will raise concerns about privacy risks. However, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has offered reassurance that the project does not breach safeguards.

EDPS head Wojciech Wiewiorowski said that it would be “preferable” that location data gathered from the COVID-19 in Europe project will be available only to experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science. He also said that such measures will not be permanent.

The European Union is just the latest part of the world to investigate technologies to track location of users to monitor (and help fight) the spread of the coronavirus. Other countries to investigate similar technologies include the likes of Singapore, Taiwan, and Israel.