UK government can use phone tracking data to stop infection spread

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Ekaphon maneechot)

Any government plan to use anonymised mobile phone location data to help tackle the spread of coronavirus would be legal, the UK privacy regulator has ruled.

Many countries are using location and satellite data to monitor citizen movements and tailor measures designed to control the outbreak. However this practice has raised security and privacy concerns, with some fearing governments could use the data to enable state surveillance.

Last week, several major European telecoms groups agreed to shared data with the EU, with the data deleted once the crisis is over, and reports have suggested the UK government is eager to follow suit.

UK location tracking

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has said that the practice would be legal in the UK so long as data is not identifiable.

“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,” said ICO Deputy Commissioner Steve Wood.

“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.”

Last week, the government took the unprecedented step of asking all four operators to send a text message to every mobile phone in the country. The message contained information about the new measures designed to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

The government lacks the capability to do this itself. Despite trials of an emergency warning system earlier in the decade, the system has never been implemented.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.