2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程

Smartphone location data could be used to track social distancing 

Data collected from mobile phones could be used to map social distancing. But privacy experts fear measures could be 'rushed'

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This morning, millions of Britons woke up to an unprecedented text message from the Government. “New rules now in force: you must stay at home.”

Mobile operators - EE, O2, Three and Vodafone - had all responded to the Government’s request to send a mass text to the British public to alert them of the UK’s shut down of public life. 

But behind the scenes, operators are having to consider an even broader use of their services. Data collected from customers could be used to check whether social distancing measures - that people must not leave their homes and must stay two meters away from people - are being followed.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The Government is hoping to use data gathered as mobile phones connect to, or “ping”, their network to create movement maps that can tell how well citizens are responding to various distancing and isolation measures. 

Earlier this month at a meeting with tech companies, the idea of using anonymised data to track movements was raised. Last week, representatives from BT and EE met Cabinet Office officials to develop these plans. 

Philip Jansen, chief executive of BT, confirmed to The Sunday Telegraph2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程 the company was considering how it could help Government “understand the flow and dynamics of people as the situation develops”.

Last week O2, the UK’s largest mobile network, was first to confirm early talks2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程. The network said its technology had the “potential to build models to help predict broadly how the virus might move”. 

Vodafone, meanwhile, has experience in deploying such anonymous tracking measures. In Ghana, during the outbreak of Ebola, it was able to deploy smartphone data to track movements of people. It has been asked for anonymised data in Italy. The network is understood to have proffered similar capabilities to the Government, although it has not yet been asked to deploy them. “This is one of a series of measures put forward to Government to help during this difficult time,” a spokesman says.

Bergamo, Italy. Vodafone has already been working with the government on sharing mobile data Credit: AP

Sharing anonymous and aggregated data on movement could help identify “hot zones”, areas where large groups gather. This could be done in such a way that it does not identify individual smartphone users, but rather flag large crowds and general movement patterns. Such data is expected to be delayed by around 12 to 24 hours.

Other tech companies have also offered ways to track location data. Google has held early talks on how aggregated GPS data from phones could be used, similar to how it calculates traffic patterns in Google Maps. A spokesman says: “This would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement or contacts.” The company adds it has yet to share any data, and was not planning to share “Location History”, effectively a map of a user's movements. 

While mobile operators could rapidly offer data that throws up extremely detailed portraits of individual movements, this could clash with privacy laws. Some operators are concerned that if such data could be de-anonymised, say by checking individuals movements against other data sets, it would be a breach of trust and privacy laws. Others suggest there may not be an immediate need for such data, now that there is an official block on unnecessary movement.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The Government is also considering launching an app to help track coronavirus, to be developed by NHSX, the NHS’s digital arm. Last week, privacy advocates warned data sharing was being thrashed out in an “ad hoc” way. They also cautioned that developing contract-tracing apps, similar to those being deployed in South Korea and China’s “social and political context… cannot be reproduced in the UK”. South Korea’s app, for instance, is downloaded by those confirmed to have the virus to ensure they do not leave their homes and become “super spreaders”.

Airport officials check self-diagnosis apps in South Korea Credit:  Yonhap

In China, the original epicentre of coronavirus, health tracking is already far more extensive thanks to government access to mobile networks. Private companies have launched advanced health checking apps. Alibaba and Tencent, the Chinese tech giants, both offer QR-code style verification that allow users to travel. Tencent’s app even takes user’s temperatures to show they are clear of fever.

Rachel Coldicutt, a co-author of the letter, says there are concerns over “rushing something out” in the UK. “If the data is collected now, who is it passed to, how long is it kept, what happens in a year?”