COVID-19 Phone Location Tracking: Yes, It’s Happening Now—Here’s What You Should Know

It’s spreading quickly now—governments around the world latching onto our smartphone locations as a proxy for where we all are, when and for how long. The data forms a map of population tracking to report on density and social distancing as well as anonymized travel patterns. Some governments are a level beyond, exploring movement tracking, contact tracing, quarantine enforcement.

What started in China, Singapore and South Korea as an exercise in rigorous containment has rapidly expanded to Europe and the U.S., countries within which the sacrifice of freedom still causes anxiety, despite the clear public interest. It turns out that after years of critiquing China’s surveillance state, come the crisis there were some useful lessons to be learned.

On Friday (March 27), the U.K.’s data and privacy authority confirmed that the government could use mobile phone data to fight the spread of COVID-19. This is a critical step. A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said that “data protection is not a barrier to sharing data—to protect against serious threats to public health. Data protection law enables the data sharing in the public interest and provides the safeguards for data that the public would expect.” Confirmation the U.K. was looking at phone data to track the virus first came ten days ago.

As I reported last week, as the tracking landscape in Europe and the U.S. began to change: “Everything about coronavirus is unprecedented. Our leaders talk about “the invisible enemy” and being on a war footing. The technology at their disposal will create a huge conflict within each of us. We want our governments to do all they can, but at some point we will make privacy compromises as never before.”

We have seen reports from Italy, Germany and Austria that phone tracking it taking place. And just two days before the U.K. privacy watchdog approved the use of mobile data, it was reported that the European Commission was discussing a more co-ordinated move with the mobile network trade association, the GSMA. In fact, there were reports that the GSMA might go further, with the potential for a central program across more than 700 operators to collect cross-border tracking data, a travel and contact tracing database designed for fighting a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the stream of coronavirus infection maps has been joined by social distancing maps—and that’s all based on mobile data and tracking. “If you have a smartphone, you’re probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system,” the Washington Post reported on March 24.

The best way to think about the concept of phone location tracking to fight the virus in in four stages, it’s a spectrum trading granularity and potency against privacy: