Will the UK government use phone tracking to fight pandemic?

Various other countries are using voluntary or mandatory tracking to follow spread of pandemic, as PM says tech will ‘help us see the disease as it is transmitted’

Credit: Piqsels

As more and more countries use some form of location tracking to try and trace the spread of coronavirus and the movements of those who contract Covid-19, speculation grows as to whether and how the UK may look to do the same.

Although the government is yet to officially announce any such measure, a spokesperson for O2 last week indicated to Sky News that the mobile network operator is providing anonymous aggregate data on the location of smartphone users. The Guardian also reported that government has held talks with EE parent company BT about implementing a similar arrangement.

And, in his daily address to the nation on Friday, prime minister Boris Johnson dropped a hint that some form of tracking would play a role in the UK’s efforts to “turn the tide” of the pandemic.

This, he said, would be achieved not only by an increase in testing and the rollout of new medicines, but “with new digital technology that will help us to see the disease as it is transmitted, and thereby, by eliminating it, to stamp it out”.

If and when the UK does begin tracking the movements of citizens as part of coronavirus response – assuming it has not done so already – it will join a growing number of nations that are doing so, either mandatorily or with the cooperation of those being tracked.

Digital agency GovTech Singapore recently launched TraceTogether, a “community-drive contact-tracing app” powered by Bluetooth.

Singaporean citizens are invited to download the app which can detect other users within Bluetooth connectivity range. Connected devices then “exchange anonymised IDs”, with users’ phones storing an encrypted version of this data.

If a user is subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19, public health officials will request access to this information, so everyone with whom they had contact can be traced, informed and, if necessary, asked to isolate.

One in three
Proportion of the first 6,000 tracking wristbands issued in Hong Kong that had been successfully activated as of Friday

Current downloads of Singapores’s TraceTogether app

30 days
Initial length of time for which Israeli authorities have been granted increased powers to surveil citizens 

Approximate potential fine for Polish citizens breaking quarantine measures

GovTech Singapore said that no geolocation or other personal data is gathered by the app, which it claimed has already been downloaded by 735,000 people. This equates to more than one in eight of Singapore’s overall population of about 5.8 million.

Government digital teams in Poland have also already created an application for voluntary download. 

The Polish app is for those who have been ordered to quarantine themselves for 14 days – under penalty of a fine of 5,000 Polish złoty (£1,080).

Quarantine measures are being enforced by the police, and the government hopes that citizens will adopt the app to save officers having the visit those under quarantine to ensure they are sticking to the rules. 

Using geolocation and facial recognition, citizens can submit photos of themselves several times a day to evidence that they are respecting the quarantine.

The Polish tool came a couple of weeks after authorities in Korea mandated that citizens being placed into quarantine must download an app which monitors their movements and alerts authorities if restrictions are ignored.

All visitors to the country are also required to download a diagnostic app and complete an assessment before being permitted entry.

Mobile operator Vodafone last week issued a five-point plan for how it intends to support public authorities and “help counter the impacts” of the outbreak. 

The fifth and final measure picked out by the plan is “improving governments’ analytics, including insights of people’s movements in affected areas”.

The telecoms firm indicated it has already provided authorities in Italy with an “aggregated and anonymous heat map… to better understand population movements” in the badly hit Lombardy region.

Vodafone said it could help other areas and countries in a similar fashion.

“It may become increasingly important for governments to understand people’s movements to contain the spread of the virus, especially inside and to and from areas under quarantine,” it added. “Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large anonymised data sets.”

Deutsche Telekom has also provided public-health agencies in Germany with anonymised aggregate data on users’ movements, to allow for better insight into the extent to which people are practising social distancing. 

In Belgium, national operators including Proximus and Telent have agreed with the government to provide data, while a number of mobile networks in Austria are reported to have done the same.

Israel, meanwhile, last week enacted emergency laws granting authorities the power to use phone-location data to track the movements of anyone suspected or known to have be infected with Covid-19. The new powers – which have met with criticism from privacy and human rights advocates – will be in effect for an initial period of 30 days. The technology allowing for this surveillance was developed for anti-terrorism purposes.

“Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large anonymised data sets”

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel is a democracy and we must maintain the balance between civil rights and the public’s needs. These tools will very much assist us in locating the sick and stopping the virus from spreading.”

In India, Reuters reports that people in the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra who are suspected of being infected with coronavirus are having their hand stamped with permanent ink, ahead of their movements then being tracked via the use of mobile phone data.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, has taken a different approach. All overseas arrivals are being issued with electronic wristbands which allow authorities to determine whether or not they are adhering to the mandatory 14-day quarantine. As of Friday, a total of 6,000 bands had been issued to incoming visitors although technical problems meant that only a third of these had been successfully acvtivated.


Sam Trendall

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