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19 countries track mobile location to fight COVID-19

In moves sure to concern privacy advocates, 19 countries are now accessing citizens’  mobile location data in an effort to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

A COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker by Top10VPN lists countries that are using mobile data for the pandemic. Uses range from anonymous aggregated data to monitor the general movement of people, to tracking the phones of individual coronavirus patients, to tracking suspected patients and their contacts, known as “contact tracing.”

“In the past week we have witnessed a 90% growth in the number of countries implementing digital tracking measures and a 100% increase in reports of censorship,” reported Top10VPN on March 26.

Actions by country

Photo: AntonioGuillem/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: AntonioGuillem/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In the United States, the Senate’s $2 trillion economic stimulus bill includes $500 million for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to launch a new “surveillance and data-collection system” to monitor the spread of COVID-19, reports Business Insider.

Europe’s telecom companies are sharing location data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria,  according to Reuters, to check whether people are remaining at home. The data is aggregated and anonymous, mapping concentrations rather than individuals to respect Europe’s privacy laws.

In South Korea, the government created a map of cellphone data provided by telecom and credit card companies. The map was made public so everyone could track whether they’d been exposed, according to The Verge.

According to reports, Iran used the COVID-19 epidemic to gather private data from its citizens “to boost Tehran’s surveillance capabilities,” reports Vice. The country sent a link to download the AC19 app with government endorsement, touting it as a way to determine whether users have the virus, but usage required sending back location data.

In Taiwan, a mobile phone-based geo-fence uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes, reports the New York Times. If the patient leaves their home address or turns off their smartphone, the police will visit within 15 minutes.

SafePaths app

The new Private Kit: SafePaths app, developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, is now available, though it is still under development. The downloadable app (for IOS and Android 8.0 and above) informs users if they’ve crossed paths with coronavirus patients, known through published data.

“The solution is a ‘pull’ model where users can download encrypted location information about carriers so the users can self-determine their likely exposure to COVID-19 and coordinate their response with their doctor using their symptoms and personal health history,” according to a white paper about the contact-tracing app.

The app takes privacy into consideration — COVID-19 patients consent to provide health officials with an accurate location trail once they are diagnosed. “Governments are equipped with a tool to redact location trails and thus broadcast location information with privacy protection for diagnosed carriers and local businesses,” the white paper reads.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, governments around the world have implemented a range of digital tracking, physical surveillance and censorship measures in a bid to slow the spread of the virus,” warns Top10VPN. “Some of these may well be proportionate, necessary and legitimate during these unprecedented times. However, others have been rushed through legislative bodies and implemented without adequate scrutiny.”

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