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UK mulls tracking mobiles to limit coronavirus spread

UK mulls tracking mobiles to limit coronavirus spread

The UK government is reportedly in talks with tech companies about using location data from smartphones and tablets to limit the spread of coronavirus.

So far, 11 governments around the world – including those in Italy, Germany and Belgium – have put in place location tracking to monitor whether people are respecting restrictions imposed on them.

Although this presents multiple privacy concerns, the UK’s approach would be non-invasive, with all data anonymised – whereas several Asian countries have deployed apps which alert law enforcement when an individual breaks quarantine.

Google – one of the companies the government is currently in talks with – told Business Insider: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymised location information could help in the fight against COVID-19.

“One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps. This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Yesterday, a group of “responsible technologists” – led by the former Doteveryone CEO Rachel Coldicutt – sent an open letter to the NHS’s tech division, imploring the government to consider the ethical implications of a tracking system.

“The imperative to innovate quickly, and the immense pressure being placed on teams within the NHS and NHSX to deliver at speed must not lead to ethical corners being cut that will undermine trust in the NHS,” the letter’s authors wrote.

The news comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown, allowing people only to leave the house to shop for necessities, to get exercise once a day, to attend to medical needs and to travel to work if no other option is available. People have also been encouraged to follow social distancing guidance issued by the government last week.


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