Governments around the world are increasingly using mobile location data to help fight the spread of coronavirus.
South Korea has used cell phone tracking data to create a publicly accessible map, where people can see if they have likely come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. The country has been widely praised for its handling of the crisis, and has seen a significant downturn in the number of cases since the number peaked at 909 cases reported on February 29.
Other countries in Asia have deployed similar tactics, some of which are even more aggressive. In Taiwan, for example. An “electronic fence” has been established, which alerts the authorities if someone who has been quarantined has strayed too far away from their home. China has also used a tracking system to keep an all-seeing eye on those in quarantine.
Iran has launched a controversial app called AC 19. Iranians were told to download the app to determine if they had been infected with the virus, but in reality AC 19 was taking the personal data of millions of citizens.
Israel authorized the use of cellphone location data to track the virus on March 16, a practice which isn’t unfamiliar in the country – its security agency has collected data from mobile carriers since 2002. In this case the data is being used to track patients who have tested positive for the virus to see who else they have been in contact with and who should be in quarantine.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, provides some of the strongest legislation against mass data gathering, but even there countries are using cellphone data to fight coronavirus. In the EU, however, this data is anonymous and aggregated, ensuring it complies with GDPR. In the Lombardy region of Italy, one of the worst hit by the virus, mobile data has been used by authorities to determine how well people are sticking to the quarantine rules.
Mobile carriers in Germany and Austria have also shared data with authorities, according to reports from Reuters.
Tracking citizens through mobile data has always been seen as one of the more sinister side effects of technological change, but in the context of the current crisis the world appears comfortable with some tracking to help save lives. When the world eventually returns to normal, data privacy advocates will be watching closely to make sure these temporary measures are not more permanent.