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