COVID-19 stokes fear of the surveillance society

Reluctant to heed government advice about "social distancing," Brits and other UK residents were last night hit by tough new rules on freedom of movement. People cannot leave their homes unless they need to buy groceries, exercise or – for those designated "key workers" – travel to work. Designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the regime is the most draconian the UK has ever known. Telecom operators could feasibly play a vital role in enforcing it.

BT, the UK's former state-owned telecom incumbent, last week offered to share location data with government authorities battling the deadly virus, according to newspaper reports. In theory, its technology could highlight areas where people have gathered in violation of the rules. If constraints on providing data in real time can be overcome, police could be dispatched to break up crowds.

The UK is not the only country where network technology could help to enforce restrictions on movement. In the US, the Trump administration is said to be in similar discussions with technology firms about access to location data. In Italy, Vodafone appears to have already delivered "heat map" data to authorities in the COVID-19-stricken region of Lombardy. Telekom Austria is working with a startup called Invenium whose algorithms can be used to illustrate people movements between locations.

In the latest example, from Asia, South Korea's SK Telecom is gifting what it calls a "floating population analysis service" to the police until the government declares an end to the COVID-19 crisis. Branded Geovision, the technology analyzes communications data between mobile phones and basestations in real time to provide accurate location-based services. According to SKT, it is capable of analyzing any part of the country every five minutes. "Upon detecting (unusually) crowded places in real time, the police agencies can dispatch officers to the scene to implement proper measures to reduce people's risk of catching the virus," says the operator in its release.

Any suggestion these moves trample civil liberties and presage the dawn of a police state sound shrill and self-defeating in the current turmoil. Offered medicine, a man on his sickbed worries little about contamination. But libertarians are uneasy. Their concern is that collusion between technology companies and governments will continue when the crisis ends. In countries where people are already subject to heavy surveillance, state monitoring of individuals could become easy and routine.

Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it is hoped, will guard against abuses in many countries. If "big data" is appropriately anonymized, privacy-conscious individuals should have less cause for alarm, say those in favor of using location-based technologies. Yet in a post-COVID-19 world, even data that is anonymized could probably be used to track the movements of known political groups and help disperse crowds. In countries where there is already some anxiety about government snooping via technology, privacy activists are understandably nervous.

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Truata, an Irish data analytics firm that has helped companies such as IBM and Mastercard with GDPR compliance, has today weighed into the debate. "Issues such as transparency cannot be overlooked even in those most challenging times," said CEO Felix Marx in emailed comments. "Questions that need to be considered include what type of personal data is being shared, for what purposes and when?" As businesses struggle in today's climate, Truata can hardly be criticized for spotting a potential opportunity, and a solution that contains COVID-19 while mitigating the privacy concerns would obviously satisfy everyone.

Until one appears, the issue in some countries may be that technology firms themselves are wary of handing over data to government authorities. The clearest example is the US market, where libertarian-minded technology executives have previously resisted such government approaches. Even in this crisis, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly said his company would probably not share any location data if it was asked to by authorities. With the country's leader now suggesting the response to COVID-19 may cause more harm than the actual disease, that decision is one Zuckerberg may never have to make.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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