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UK to use mobile data to track people’s whereabouts during coronavirus crisis

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The Government has asked mobile operators to provide information on its users’ movements and data usage patterns in order to gain a better understanding of the extent to which its lockdown measures are being adhered.

The Guardian reports that BT, owner of largest UK mobile operator EE, has been asked by the Government to provide the data which could influence the strategy to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in the coming weeks.

O2 has also said it was asked to support those mapping and seeking to control the spread of the virus, but ruled out allowing individuals to be identified.

A BT spokesperson said: “We are talking with the Government about a number of areas in which we may be able to assist with the national public health effort.

“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.”

O2 said it would only give the Government access to very broad mass movements of people rather than data on individuals that could be traced back.

“Besides zero rating access to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK,” a spokesperson said.

“‘Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.”

The information sent from telecommunications firms will be delayed by between 12 and 24 hours rather than as real-time updates.

Taiwan is already rolling out an 'electric fence' that uses location tracking from smartphones to determine whether people are breaching its quarantine protocols.

"The goal is to stop people from running around and spreading the infection," said Jyan Hong-wei, head of Taiwan's department of cyber security.

Phone signals are monitored and alerts sent to the police and local officials if those in lockdown leave their home. Authorities will contact or visit the person within 15 minutes of an alert being triggered in addition to regular twice-daily checks already being carried out.

Taiwan has so far prevented Covid-19 from having a major impact on its 23 million citizens, even though hundreds of thousands of them work and live in mainland China. The country has reported only 135 cases of the virus and two deaths, despite China’s equivalent statistics being significantly higher.

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