After being late to crack down on public gatherings and letting the media disseminate its advice on social distancing and the coronavirus in general, the government has decided that now’s a good time to pull its finger out of its arse and start tracking people to stop the spread of the virus.
If we pretend that this isn’t a problem for a moment, we’re all on lockdown already. The only application this has right now is to track people breaching lockdown, and while the data is anonymous, once the fuzz show up to ‘disperse’ you, that’s just gone right out of the window. Frankly, it just sounds like a bullshit way to justify tracking people, and open up a pathway to keep doing so once the pandemic is over.
Mobile operators have been given the okay to hand over your location data to the government, who always seems quick to act when an opportunity to breach its citizens’ privacy is involved. After weeks of people not heeding self-isolation advice or taking the covid-19 threat seriously, Boris Johnson banished us to the indoors, saying not enough people were making an effort and they’ve ruined it for everyone – that was the general gist at least. While he has a valid point on that front, he’s also running the country; it’s his job to make sure vital information gets to everyone – including the idiots who fail to keep themselves informed.
We already know that the government didn’t do enough off its own back to ensure that the gravity of the situation was effectively communicated to everyone, and was far too reliant on other industries to do its job. Seven years after trialling a national emergency alert system, there still isn’t one in place. The SMS message we all received when the lockdown was announced was sent by mobile operators on behalf of the government. It needed everyone to know they had to stay indoors, and suddenly found an appropriate delivery method for that message only when it was decreed we should be confined to our houses. An ‘official’ alert sent weeks earlier may have reached those people who ignored news reports and had no real awareness of the reality of the situation.
So after all that, we’ll now be seeing our mobile networks hand over our anonymised mobile phone location data to the government who isn’t clarifying what it needs it for, or how it will be used. The EU has seen a number of network operators already doing this, with some countries going as far as using satellite data and other means of tracking to keep an eye on everyone. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has said it’s all above board, with ICO Deputy Commissioner Steve Wood saying:
“Generalised location data trend analysis is helping to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Where this data is properly anonymised and aggregated, it does not fall under data protection law because no individual is identified. In these circumstances, privacy laws are not breached as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place.
“The ICO has provided advice about how data protection law can continue to apply flexibly to protect lives and data. The safety and security of the public remains our primary concern. We will continue to work alongside Government to provide advice about the application of data protection law during these unprecedented times.”
As well as remaining about as transparent as a brick wall on the basics, there’s no word on whether this is a temporary measure, with the data being deleted afterwards, or something that will persist after finagling it in under the guide of a national emergency. So that’ll be fun to find out. [TechRadar]
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