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Network operators share location data with EU to track pandemic

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A group of European mobile network operators have agreed to share customers’ location data with the European Commission in order to help track the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The agreement was announced by the GSMA, which represents mobile network operators, following a meeting with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton earlier this week. It will include Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Telia, and A1 Telekom Austria.

Some privacy advocates are concerned that governments’ vast data collection operations under the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic will compromise civil liberties; in an effort to allay concerns, an EU official said that the commission would use anonymised data and aggregate phone location data in order to track the spread of the virus. This sort of safeguarded, anonymised data collection should fall outside the remit of the EU’s strict data protection regulations.

In a letter acquired by Reuters, the head of the EU’s data regulator Wojciech Wiewiorowski advised the Commission to: “clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings.”

“It would also be preferable to limit access to the data to authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection, and data science,” he wrote. He also stated that the measures must be temporary: “The [regulator] often stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone. I would like to stress that such solution should be still recognised as extraordinary.”

The data will be deleted once the crisis passes, they said, adding that the EU did not aspire to centralisation of mobile data.

The governments of many countries, including Israel, Singapore, and Taiwan, are using a range of methods – some more intrusive than others – to track the movements of citizens in order to inform their responses to the pandemic.

The UK government has asked at least two of the country’s mobile network operators to share information on their customers’ movements in order to gain a better understanding of the extent to which lockdown measures to minimise transmission of the virus are being followed.

All UK network operators have also worked with the government to deliver emergency SMS messages on the government’s behalf, warning citizens to stay inside and directing them to more information about the pandemic on the gov.uk website. The operators have also agreed to give their customers free online access to the most recent NHS health information about the pandemic.

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