In an attempt to manage problems caused by the coronavirus, governments all over the globe are ramping up their use of location data. Exactly how much would that affect your privacy comes down to the country you live in. Some governments are doing their best not to violate their citizens’ privacy by anonymizing the data that they use. Others aren’t so worried about that and are sharing user information with whoever they think can help stop the spread of the virus.
There is little to suggest that the virus is going to stop spreading without proper action. And that has prompted governments in various parts of the world to use data available via mobile carriers in order to track anything and everything that might help them isolate patients and decide which patient should be isolated and whether or not the isolated patient is following the given movement restrictions.
Starting with the EU, almost all major mobile carriers are now obliged to share user data with Italian health authorities. The same is the case in Austria. On the face of it, such measures will help governments to monitor people and see if they are maintaining social distance recommendations along with other instructions when they are in lockdown at home throughout the duration of the outbreak.
Now, people living in Europe do get a lot of personal data protection because of GDPR as that can put restrictions on how various different companies can manage and share user data. As mentioned before, complying with current GDPR rules, the data cell phone providers are sharing is aggregated and anonymous. Authorities in Italy have used such data since the lockdown began in order to get a more accurate picture of the virus’ spread and people’s movements.
Similarly, authorities in Israel have used the same location data in order to track the coronavirus. Shin Bet, Israel’s internet security agency, began collecting data from mobile carriers about two decades ago. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has officially given Shin Bet the permission to track patients and monitor their movements. The agency also uses the same data to decide which patient should remain under quarantine.
The New York Times recently came out with a report in which a security official working for the government in Israel said that the government would only use the data in a time-limited, focused and limited activity.
Moving towards Asia to China, Taiwan, and South Korea and we see some of the most aggressive pandemic-containing measures in the world. China specifically has implemented a tracking system via which the government can send vast amounts of information to various law enforcement agents in the country.
Taiwan has also used modern measures such as electronic fencing to alert law enforcement authorities in the country if a person who should be in quarantine has violated movement restrictions.
Some pandemic experts have suggested that countries such as China, Taiwan, and South Korea were able to avoid an overwhelming number of coronavirus patients precisely because they used such aggressive and privacy-invading measures.
Some reports have mentioned that the mobile phone industry has even explored the option of creating a comprehensive global location-sharing system that would track people all over the world in order to further curb the novel coronavirus from spreading.
Of course, no one can debate the fact that governments are tracking the movement of coronavirus patients in order to contain the virus’ spread isn’t something sinister. But that still has raised a ton of privacy concerns especially among people who have not been diagnosed with the virus. According to Privacyend.com, there is no way to know for sure that such tracking methods are as effective as governments are saying they are or if they will stop after the pandemic is over.
For people who are worried about their privacy and don’t want the government to track them, they have the option of disabling the location feature via the settings menu on their devices. Another method to do the same is to simply switch off the device.
There hasn’t been much talk about how the US is using location data to track patients. However, recent reports have said that the government has contacted tech companies including Google and Facebook to explore the possibility of doing so to contain the virus in the country.