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EU will use smartphone location data to track coronavirus spread

European telecom carriers have agreed to share smartphone location data with the European Commission.

Published onMarch 26, 2020

Major European telecom carriers have agreed to share smartphone location data with the European Commission in order to better track the spread of the coronavirus.

Reuters reports that Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and five other telecoms providers met with the EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Thierry Breton on Monday. The final agreement was approved on Wednesday.

The commission has said it will anonymize the location data in order to protect the privacy of users. The data will be used to coordinate measures such as the supply of medical equipment, location of quarantined patients, and more.

It’s also worth noting that the data will be deleted after the crisis is over, or at least that’s what officials have promised. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has reportedly said that this project to collect location data does not breach any privacy rules.

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“The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings,” EDPS said in a letter to the EU executives seen by Reuters. The privacy watchdog has also recommended that access to this dataset should be limited.

Even so, there are concerns that such location tracking programs could be difficult to roll back.

“The EDPS often stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone. I would like to stress that such (a) solution should be still recognized as extraordinary,” EDPS Chief Wojciech Wiewiorowski wrote in a letter seen by Reuters.

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Research on anonymized data has also shown that it doesn’t really help protect privacy. Anonymous individuals can be re-identified if the right data points are studied together.

The EU is not the only region implementing such extreme location tracking measures to counter the coronavirus spread. The US government is also apparently in talks with tech firms like Facebook and Google to possibly use smartphone location data for combating the pandemic. India too is reportedly building a coronavirus app to track people using their smartphone location.

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