Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy

Nic Fildes and Javier Espinoza at the Financial Times: “When the World Health Organization launched a 2007 initiative to eliminate malaria on Zanzibar, it turned to an unusual source to track the spread of the disease between the island and mainland Africa: mobile phones sold by Tanzania’s telecoms groups including Vodafone, the UK mobile operator.

Working together with researchers at Southampton university, Vodafone began compiling sets of location data from mobile phones in the areas where cases of the disease had been recorded. 

Mapping how populations move between locations has proved invaluable in tracking and responding to epidemics. The Zanzibar project has been replicated by academics across the continent to monitor other deadly diseases, including Ebola in west Africa….

With much of Europe at a standstill as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians want the telecoms operators to provide similar data from smartphones. Thierry Breton, the former chief executive of France Telecom who is now the European commissioner for the internal market, has called on operators to hand over aggregated location data to track how the virus is spreading and to identify spots where help is most needed.

Both politicians and the industry insist that the data sets will be “anonymised”, meaning that customers’ individual identities will be scrubbed out. Mr Breton told the Financial Times: “In no way are we going to track individuals. That’s absolutely not the case. We are talking about fully anonymised, aggregated data to anticipate the development of the pandemic.”

But the use of such data to track the virus has triggered fears of growing surveillance, including questions about how the data might be used once the crisis is over and whether such data sets are ever truly anonymous….(More)”.