The British cell phone company O2 has confirmed they are in the “early stages” of discussions with the government to provide anonymous location data.
Reports emerged on Thursday evening that the British government had asked O2, one of the leading cell phone companies in the UK, to provide them with location data to see if people were following the social distancing measures that the government had released in order to tackle the coronavirus.
Some of the recommendations included not going out to pubs or restaurants, and avoiding mass gatherings.
In an email to National File, O2 said that there is nothing in place yet with the government, only “discussions at early stages,” and that despite having the capability to provide modelling support, it would only ever relate to mass movements of people, and not individuals.
They claim that this operates completely under GDPR and “existing privacy legislation.”
Besides zero rating access to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK. Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.
Many people were astounded that the government would request the data, with one Twitter user calling it a “breach of privacy and human rights,” and another comparing the decision to the totalitarian government depicted in George Orwell’s book “1984,” set in a dystopian future United Kingdom.
Alexander Martin, the technology reporter for Sky News, noted that the UK government were only using location data from O2, and not from any other cell network, as combining multiple datasets would make the project “high risk processing.”
Martin said that the government intended to use “aggregated and anonymised data to observe trends in public movements, particularly in London,” and while there was no “obvious cause for alarm regarding privacy,” the project certainly showed there are issues regarding government transparency.
Crucially, this isn't a mass-surveillance project. The government intends to use aggregated and anonymised data to observe trends in public movements, particularly in London. Issues about government transparency, certainly, but no obvious cause for alarm regarding privacy.
— Alexander J. Martin (@AlexMartin) March 19, 2020
Jim Killock, the director of Open Rights Group, told Sky News that the government “needs to maintain public trust, which means they must declare what they are doing, under which laws”:
Transparency is absolutely key to ensuring everyone trusts what the government is doing. As things stand, secretive discussions with private companies, combined with comments about sacrificing liberties, risks breeding mistrust. Everyone needs the government to succeed in their fight against the virus; all the public needs is transparency.
Currently, 143 people have died in the UK from coronavirus, and there have been 3,269 confirmed cases of the illness.
At the time of writing, the government has not released a statement. This story will be updated if they do so.