Telecommunications data and Covid-19

For over twenty years, PI has been pushing back against ambitious government surveillance initiatives to regularise the retention of telecommunications data, or the bulk collection and processing. We have also pushed to ensure that telcos and other data aggregators do not exploit the data they hold. 

Despite its reputation for data protection and the existing of the EU Charter, the European Union has been a particularly problematic surveillance actor in this space. The EU Directive on communications data retention was made invalid in 2016 by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) and yet repeatedly governments and the EU have sought to re-establish the policy. Sweden and the UK are currently before the European Court of Human Rights on bulk surveillance powers and the sharing of data across borders, including telecommunications data.

Valuable data from mobile phone companies will for the most part be the location data they collect as a result of your phone connections to their cell towers. They also hold data on all the calls you make, so they can see who you are interacting with -- though less valuable for health purposes, this is what intelligence and police agencies often crave. Therefore they will be able to provide insights into location and contact-tracing.

The emphasis on this data is primarily for enforcement purposes. So when Swisscom notifies Swiss authorities of mass gatherings, Telco A1 to the Austrians, or O2 shares data with the UK Government, or in Belgium the telcos are giving data to a third-party analytics company -- they are doing so to aid the monitoring and enforcement of social distancing. 

This isn't necessarily helping health researchers in the 'delay' phase; though there is confusing news from Russia believing that contact tracing can occur using this data, or reports that in Italy 'anonymised' location data can aid contact tracing -- either the data is anonymous or merely de-identified and re-identifiable when someone tests positive. 

When we see this in the form of enforcement rather than direct healthcare, it's easier to understand why the Israeli government would therefore hand this data to its internal policing agency, Shin Bet. 

In later stages, this data could be used for enforcement of self-quarantines, where any given individual's movements across cells could be notified to authorities. 

10 Jul 2020
Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court has struck down a government order forcing telecommunications companies to provide access to the user information relating to the country’s 200 million citizens to enable the government to conduct phone interviews to determine the economic response to the COVID-19
03 Jul 2020
The Dutch data protection authority, Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, is recommending against a bill working its way through the parliament that would force telecoms operators to collect more data on their customers and share it with Statistics Netherlands as part of the country’s pandemic response. The
30 Jun 2020
On June 24, Israeli ministers reversed a previous decision and unanimously decided to support controversial legislation allowing the Israeli security service Shin Bet to track civilians’ phones to help curb the spread of the coronavirus after a new spike in infections. On June 30 the Knesset Foreign
13 May 2020
The Slovak Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional parts of the newly amended telecommunication law that permitted state authorities to access telcommunications data for the purposes of contact tracing. The parliament approved the legislation in March, but the court ruled that the need for
26 May 2020
South Korea's second spike in coronavirus cases was curbed via a contact tracing regime that uses credit card records, mobile phone tracking, and GPS location data in order to track the previous movements of infected individuals working alongside efficient diagnostic testing. Successfully tracing an
01 May 2020
As the first confirmed coronavirus case in Pakistan, Yahyah Jaffery became a pariah after his identity, photograph, and home address were leaked on social media. Similar leaks about dozens of other patients and medical staff followed. The contact tracing system being used for coronavirus was
02 May 2020
At least 27 countries are using data from cellphone companies to track the movements of their citizens, and at least 30 have developed smartphone apps for the public to download. Fewer objections have been raised in countries with greater levels of success in containing the virus. However, although
22 Apr 2020
Citing privacy concerns, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee voted to block the Israeli government’s request for an extension to police powers to requisition mobile phone roaming data relating to those ordered to quarantine for enforcement purposes. Access had been granted for a
28 Apr 2020
The Israeli company Cellebrite, best known for providing hacking software to help law enforcement agencies get inside suspects' iPhones, is now pitching its technology to help authorities pull the location data and contacts off the phones of newly-diagnosed COVID-19 patients in order to "quarantine
24 Mar 2020
When the phone belonging to an American University student in Taiwan, who was subject to 14 days' quarantine after returning from Europe, ran out of battery power, in less than hour he had received phone calls from four different local administrative units, a text message notifying him he would be
09 Apr 2020
Thousands of Israelis have been ordered into quarantine without any right of appeal based on cellphone tracking that may be wrong because phone geolocation is insufficiently fine-grained to tell the difference between two people being in the same room and being separated by a door when dropping off
31 Mar 2020
The regulations brought in to curb the spread of COVID-19 in South Africa included directions published by the minister of communications and digital technologies that critics claimed violated the country's constitution. On the plus side, the regulations ordered service providers to ensure continued
31 Mar 2020
As part of Mexico City's March 31 lockdown, which shut all shops except those relating to health, food, and essential services, telephone companies will provide access to cell phone antennas to enable the Digital Agency of Public Innovation to monitor movement and personal contact. The information
24 Mar 2020
A BBC article captures the story of a student living in Taiwan under quarantine, who reports that when his battery on his phone ran out, within an hour four different local administrative units contacted him; and a patrol was dispatched to verify his location; and a text was sent that the government
09 Apr 2020
The city of Moscow is planning to use smartphone geolocation functions to track foreign tourists' movements through the city to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 after Russia reopens its borders. Moscow accounts for two-thirds of all cases in the country. Moscow City Hall is considering a system that
09 Apr 2020
In order to enforce mandatory 14-day quarantine orders, Kenyan authorities have been tracking mobile phones of people suspected to have COVID-19. Also in Kenya, police enforcement efforts have led to several deaths: three died of injuries from being beaten, one, a 13-year-old boy, was hit by a
10 Apr 2020
As part of its new state of emergency law, Cambodia's national assembly has granted the country's leader, Hun Sen, new powers to surveille telecommunications, control the press and social media, restrict freedom of movement and of assembly, seize private property, and enforce quarantine orders, as
05 Apr 2020
On request, Vodafone Australia, which has 6 million subscribers nationwide, handed the mobile phone location data of several million Australians to the federal and New South Wales governments to help them monitor whether people are following the social distancing restrictions. The governments
03 Apr 2020
The government has issued a substantial rewrite of a controversial proposal to track people using their phones and other devices in the bid to contain Covid-19. AmaBhungane, an investigative journalism newsroom, said the first “directions” – issued last week by the minister of communications –
25 Mar 2020
Israel intends to deploy a cellphone tracking system developed in Taiwan by Chunghwa Telecom, which launched it on February 1 in Taiwan, where it was used to track the subscribers of Taiwan's five network operators. To begin, Taiwan's Centers for Disease Control compiled a list of people who need to
23 Mar 2020
On March 9, SK Telecom began providing South Korea's Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency with its Geovision population analysis service and GIRAF platform. The company claims that the combination can analyse mobile geolocation data across the country in real time, create visualisations, and show how
02 Apr 2020
The South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research will partner with Telkom and Samsung to create a track and trace system specifically for the South African context, which includes high levels of economic inequality, poverty, and
30 Mar 2020
With more than 71,000 Serbian citizens returning to the country, primarily from Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, the government has introduced systems to ensure they obey the country's self-isolation rules. The government monitors telephone numbers, especially Italian ones, and pays special
30 Mar 2020
Mobile phone users in Pakistan have discovered that the government is accessing, without consent, their mobile phone location and call records despite legal questions about whether doing so violates the country's constitution. After users reported that patients testing positive for COVID-19 returned
24 Mar 2020
Norway's state research and development company, Simula Research Laboratory, in collaboration with the Institute of Public Health, is working to develop technical solutions to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Code discovered on Github and later removed included examples of how the researchers
30 Mar 2020
Authorities in the Kazakhstan cities of Astana and Almaty will require those ordered to mandatory quarantine to install the Smart Astana app and enable geolocation settings, wifi, and Bluetooth to make it possible to monitor them and ensure they move no more than 30 meters from their designated
17 Mar 2020
Using mobile phone data to verify the movements of their owners, the Italian region of Lombardy found that between February 20, when the first COVID-19 case was discovered, and March 10, movement by its 2 million inhabitants dropped by just under 60%. Lombardy has also used cell phone data, obtained
17 Mar 2020
Using mobile phone data to verify the movements of their owners, the Italian region of Lombardy found that between February 20, when the first COVID-19 case was discovered, and March 10, movement by its 2 million inhabitants dropped by just under 60%. Lombardy has also used cell phone data, obtained
31 Mar 2020
The Israeli defense minister, Naftali Bennett, has published a plan under which civilian companies including the controversial company NSO Group would cooperate with the defence establishment to fight the novel coronavirus after a sharp rise in reported cases indicated that existing methods of
31 Mar 2020
The State Disaster Management Authority of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in collaboration with other government agencies, is developing tools to track the travel history of people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and those who are under quarantine at home. The COVID alerting
The French telecom operator Orange is repurposing its 2013 Flux Vision, which allowed cities and tourist destinations to see their visitors' travel flows, to answer European Commissioner Thierry Breton's call for the EU's mobile operators to provide their location data to fight the pandemic through
30 Mar 2020
The Cyprus health minister, Constantinos Ioannou, has imposed a curfew between 9pm and 6am every night from 31 March onwards for all but essential workers, who will have to carry a confirmation form signed by their employer; those who do not comply will be fined €300, double the previous fine
30 Mar 2020
The Croatian government intends to enforce individual quarantine orders via a dedicated app, text message alerts, or location data provided by telecommunications companies. However, the government aims to comply with GDPR by targeting only those ordered into self-isolation and only tracking their
29 Mar 2020
The Argentinian Ministry of Transport, working with the state-owned satellite company ARSAT and the telecoms regulator,ENACOM, proposed to the Executive on 31 March 2020 a platform that uses cell tower data to track people on public transport and ensure they comply with quarantine laws. By 28 March
02 Apr 2020
The surveillance tool supplier Cy4Gate is pitching surveillance tools to track every citizen and their contacts to multiple governments around the world, including their own. In a demonstration of the system, Governments using the system, which Cy4Gate calls "Human Interaction Tracking System (HITS)
25 Mar 2020
8 europeans telecoms providers (Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange,Telefonica, Telecom Italia , Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria) have agreed to share mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus. The Commission said it would use anonymsed data
25 Mar 2020
South Africa's Communications Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, has stated that telecommunications operators in the country have agreed to provide location data to identify how many people have been infected in a particular area. The Government has broad powers under a national state of disaster
19 Mar 2020
The Mumbai police have been asked by the civic governing body to track the movements of people arriving at Mumbai airport through the GPS location of their phones. Arrivals at the airport in Mumbai are also being stamped with “Proud to protect Mumbaikars. Home quarantined” with the date until which
26 Mar 2020
Bulgarian police forces have been authorised to request and obtain metadata from citizens' private communications from telephone and Internet operators. The powers are reportedly to be used to monitor those under compulsory quarantine, and will allow police to track their movement as well as
30 Mar 2020
The Armenian National Assembly is considering identifying the contacts of people infected with Covid-19 through cell phone location data. The draft was tabled by the government. If approved, the operators of the public electronic communications networks will be obliged to provide information on
06 Mar 2020
Although the alerts about contacts with people infected by the coronavirus sent out via SMS by the South Korean government do not include names, the information included about people who tested positive for coronavirus, and their past locations can be revealingly detailed in some cases. Those who
25 Mar 2020
The European Commission urged Europe's telecoms giants, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, to share their users' mobile data streams from across the region to help predict the spread of the coronavirus "for the common good". In a letter in response, Dutch Renew MEP Sophie In't Veld stressed that
24 Mar 2020
Researchers at Germany's Robert Koch Institute and Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute are working on an app that uses Bluetooth connections between smartphones and is compliant with GDPR to anonymously save the distance and duration of contact between people on the smartphone to make it possible to
26 Mar 2020
Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Informatics/KOMINFO official website) On Thursday, 26 March 2020, the Indonesian Minister of Communication and Informatics, Johnny G. Plate, issued the Ministerial Decree No. 159/2000 to facilitate the cooperation between the Government and telecommunication
24 Mar 2020
The success of South Korea's efforts to combat the coronavirus without a national lockdown and without suspending civil rights depended in part on preparation put in place after the 2015 MERS epidemic and in part on the country's network of private testing labs, which enabled the country to quickly
25 Mar 2020
A newly-enacted Slovakian law, inspired by similar laws in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, allows the country's Public Health Office to use location data from mobile phones to track people ordered to quarantine to ensure they are not breaking the rules. The angry public response on privacy
24 Mar 2020
Estonia's Government Crisis Commission has instructed the state statistical office, Statistics Estonia, to use mobile geolocation data from companies such as Telia, Elisa, and Tele 2 in order to study people's movements to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Statistics Estonia hoped to launch the
24 Mar 2020
A day after John Tory, the mayor of the City of Toronto, told thousands of attendees at an online event hosted by TechTO that the city was gathering cellphone location data from telecoms in order to identify areas where residents were still congregating despite the city's social distancing rules, he
23 Mar 2020
The Rio de Janeiro City Hall has signed an agreement with telecomunications company TIM to use geolocation data to develop "heat maps" by cross-referencing epidemological hubs with high population density locations. Under the agreement, TIM will pinpoint the movement of its users across Rio de
19 Mar 2020
In response to a case brought by the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), the Arab Joint List, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction on March 19 limiting the the state's and the Shin Bet security service's use of
23 Mar 2020
Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin has ordered the country's Communications Ministry to develop a system, to be built on analysing specific individuals' geolocation data from telecommunications companies that can track people who have come into contact with those who have tested positive for
24 Mar 2020
After Pakistani residents queried whether messages labelled "CoronaALERT" sent out via SMS were legitimate, telecom authorities confirmed that it was authentic, being sent to selected individuals at the request of the Ministry of Health under the Digital Parkistan programme. Individuals were chosen
21 Mar 2020
The self-testing web app issued by Argentina's Secretariat of Public Innovation asks for national ID number, email and phone as mandatory fields in order to submit the test. The Android version requires numerous permissions: calendar, contacts, geolocation data (both network-based and GPS)
23 Mar 2020
Because tracking and limiting the movement of those suspected to be carrying COVID-19 carriers has been a factor in flattening the exponential curve of cases in places like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, Professor Marylouise McLaws, a technical advisor to the WHO's Infection Prevention and
25 Mar 2020
According to information collected by Le Temps, telco Swisscom will use SIM card geolocation data to communicate to federal authorities when more than 20 phones are detected in an 100 square meters area. Gathering of more than 5 people are forbidden in Switzerland since March 21. Data collected by
12 Mar 2020
The Belgian Minister of Public Health has approved a programme under which telephone companies Proximus and Telenet will transfer some of their their data to the private third-party company Dalberg Data Insights in order to help combat the coronavirus epidemic; Orange has also agreed "in principle"
16 Mar 2020
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has authorised the country's internal security agency to use a previously secret tranche of mobile phone geolocation data, gathered to combat terrorism, to retrace the movements of individuals with confirmed cases of the coronavirus and identify people
17 Mar 2020
The Ecuadorian government has authorised tracking mobile phones via GPS satellite to ensure that citizens do not break mandatory quarantine after six violators were identified. Source: https://www.ecuadortv.ec/noticias/covid-19/romo-vigilancia-epidemiologico-covid19-? Writer: Ecuador TV Publication
06 Feb 2020
A phone-tracking system used by SAPOL for criminal investigations was used to better understand where a coronavirus-infected 60-year-old couple, who had travelled from Wuhan to visit relatives, roamed in Adelaide in order to identify people who might have been exposed, according to the South
19 Mar 2020
Mobile network operator O2 is providing aggregated data to the UK government to analyse anonymous smartphone location data in order to show people are following the country's social distancing guidelines, particularly in London, which to date accounts for about 40% of the UK's confirmed cases and 30
19 Mar 2020
BT, owner of UK mobile operator EE, is in talks with the government about using its phone location and usage data to monitor whether coronavirus limitation measures such as asking the public to stay at home are working. The information EE supplies would be delayed by 12 to 24 hours, and would
27 Feb 2020
A document awaiting approval from the federal authorities outlines the measures Russia may need to adopt in the event of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak. In "emergency mode". The proposal's Plan A allows for cancelling all international sports, cultural, scientific, and social events in Moscow
24 Feb 2020
Russian authorities are using surveillance cameras, facial recognition systems, and geolocation to enforce a two-week quarantine regime affecting 2,500 people. Chinese citizens are banned from entering Russia; Russians and citizens of other countries who arrive from China are required to go through
17 Mar 2020
The German mobile operator Deutsche Telekom announced in a press conference on RKI Live that it had passed on, anonymised, its users' movement data to the Robert-Koch Institute to study the extent to which the population would follow the government's restrictions. RKI president Lothar Wieler said
17 Mar 2020
The Austrian telecom operator A1 has voluntarily provided the government with "anonymized" location data of its customers for the first two Saturdays in March. The data shows that citizens have significantly reduced their social contacts. After critics expressed privacy concerns, the company issued
18 Mar 2020
In a statement, Vodafone said it is "producing an aggregated and anonymous heat map for the Lombardy region in Italy to help the authorities to better understand population movements in order to help thwart the spread of COVID-19." The company offered to help governments develop insights based on
17 Mar 2020
A task force at the Italian Ministry of Innovation, in collaboration with the University of Pavia to leverage big data technologies to deal with COVID-19, after the WHO advised governments that lockdowns alone are not enough, and that testing, isolation, and contact tracing are crucial. The effort