As governments around the world implement measures to help slow the spread of the virus, many have turned to digital tracking initiatives to help monitor their populations.
Measures have included the use of aggregated mobile location data to track citizens during lockdowns, apps designed to help identify the location of those with the virus, and the deployment of advanced mobile monitoring technologies.
Below is a reverse chronological list of confirmed digital tracking measures being adopted around the world.
USA – 28/03/20
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal on March 28: “Government officials across the U.S. are using location data from millions of cellphones in a bid to better understand the movements of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.”
“The data — which is stripped of identifying information like the name of a phone’s owner — could help officials learn how coronavirus is spreading around the country and help blunt its advance,” the story continues.
It is thought the data has been acquired from the mobile advertising industry, instead of mobile operators.
Brazil – 27/03/20
According to a report from ZDNet on March 27: “the mayor of Recife said the city is tracking at least 700.000 smartphones to identify where the lockdown rules are being followed”
The report continues: “Governments across Brazil are looking to roll out a system developed that uses geolocation tracking to support actions around the lockdowns intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
The system is developed by InLoco, a Brazilian startup, and geotracks users “through a location map that doesn’t use GPS or beacons, which InLoco claims to be 30 times more accurate than GPS.”
South Africa – 24/03/20
On Wednesday 24 March, South Africa’s communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told reporters: “It is important to look at the individuals that are affected [by the virus] in order to be able to help the department of health to say that we know, in a particular area we have so many people that have been infected.”
“The [telecommunications] industry collectively has agreed to provide data analytics services in order to help government achieve this,” she continued.
According to a report by Business Insider, “She did not provide further details, and regulations that will govern South Africa’s national lockdown, and methods of curbing the spread of the virus, have not yet been published.”
Bulgaria – 24/03/20
According to a tweet from Dr. Vesselin Bontchev, from March 24 Bulgarian authorities will have the power to trace mobile phone traffic metadata and internet contacts without a court order.
According to his tweet, “The idea is to trace those in quarantine but this limitation is not spelled out in the law.”
Pakistan – 24/03/20
On March 24, Ramsha Jahangir reported that several residents across the country had received a text message alerting them that they may have come into contact with someone with the virus.
According to the article in Dawn, the message reads: “It has been observed that you may have come in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case in the last 14 days. You are, therefore, requested to take necessary precautionary measures by self-quarantine.”
It is thought the measure has been implemented via cell site location information (CSLI) and call detail record (CDR) data acquisition methods.
“Using CDR analysis, details such as locations visited by a confirmed Covid-19 patient as well as cell phone numbers of others who were in the same vicinity at the time can be obtained from the patient’s phone data,” the article continues.
Russia – 23/03/20
On March 23, the Russian government released an announcement ordering the Ministry of Communications to develop a new contact tracing system to help monitor citizens thought to have come into contact with those that have the virus.
According to Meduza, “the system [will] analyze specific individuals’ geolocation data from telecommunications companies.”
Singapore – 20/03/20
On March 20, a new app called TraceTogether was released by authorities in Singapore to help trace the spread of COVID-19.
The app, which already has 650,000 users according to the app’s website, was developed by the Government Technology Agency and the Ministry of Health.
According to the Straits Times, the app can “identify people who have been in close proximity […] to coronavirus patients using wireless Bluetooth technology.”
According to a video released by TraceTogether, “No geolocation data or other personal data is collected.”
India – 20/03/20
On Friday, 20 March, Reuters reported that: “People suspected of having the coronavirus in India have received hand stamps and are being tracked using their mobile phones and personal data.”
The indelible hand stamps, which have been applied to citizens arriving at airports in Maharashtra and southern Karnataka, include the date that the person may be released from self isolation.
“In southern Kerala state, authorities have used telephone call records, CCTV footage, and mobile phone GPS systems to track down primary and secondary contacts of coronavirus patients,” the Reuters story continues.
Poland – 19/03/20
On March 19, Poland’s Ministry of Digital Affairs launched a new app for quarantined citizens.
The app prompts its users to send a geo-located selfie at random times throughout the day, so that authorities can ensure that they are abiding by the quarantine measures.
Failure to comply with the orders to remain inside could result in a fine of PLN 5,000.
According to Privacy International: “The system checks both the person (using facial recognition) and the location, essentially replicating what would otherwise be a visit from a police officer.”
United Kingdom – 19/03/20
On Thursday March 19, Sky News reported that the British government was working with major mobile network, 02, to analyse its users’ location data.
According to the article, “the project will not be able to track individuals and is not to designed to do so.”
A report published the same day by The Guardian revealed that EE, the country’s largest mobile operating company, was also in advanced discussions with the government about how best to share their users’ location data.
As the article made clear, “privacy campaigners worry that handing over such personally identifying information in large quantities crosses a line that may be hard to step back from when things return to normality.”
Hong Kong – 19/03/20
All international arrivals to Hong Kong currently have to stay at home for 14 days to help slow the spread of the virus. To track the new arrivals, authorities are now providing them with wristbands that log a user’s location and share it with relevant authorities.
Anyone violating the quarantine orders could face up to six months in prison and a fine of up to HK$25,000, according to Quartz.
Italy – 18/03/20
Vodafone launched a five-point plan to help respond Oto the outbreak of COVID-19 on March 18.
According to the press release, the company was “already producing an aggregated and anonymous heat map for the Lombardy region in Italy to help the authorities to better understand population movements in order to help thwart the spread of COVID-19.”
Israel – 17/03/20
On Tuesday, 17 March, Israel’s government approved new surveillance measures that will allow the regime to track citizens by monitoring their mobile phones.
Benjamin Netanyahu had outlined his plans the previous weekend.
The technology, which was originally developed to assist in counter-terrorism operations, is thought to be able to track the physical location of all mobiles in the country, as well as monitor calls and messages.
According to digital rights group, 7amleh, it is also capable of accessing citizens cameras and headsets.
Israel [is] committing mass violations of digital rights, especially the right to privacy, under the pretext of managing the health crisis caused by the Coronavirus. 7amleh
Ecuador – 17/03/20
According to a report by Ecuador TV, on March 17 Government Minister María Paula Romo announced that the government would begin to use satellite tracking to ensure citizens did not breach the “epidemiological fence.”
Privacy International later reported that the measure “authorised tracking mobile phones via GPS satellite to ensure that citizens do not break mandatory quarantine after six violators were identified.”
Germany – 17/03/19
Deutsche Telekom, the German mobile operator, announced on March 17 that it was passing anonymised location data of its users to the Robert-Koch Institute, a research institute and government agency responsible for disease control and prevention.
The move came after the government altered its GDPR-enabling legislation to allow the processing of personal data during an epidemic.
Austria – 17/03/20
In Austria, reports emerged on March 17 claiming that Austrian mobile operators had begun sharing anonymised mobile location data with the government.
Like the initiatives in Germany and the UK, the measure is intended to be used to track whether or not citizens’ were restricting travel and following government advice.
South Korea – 16/03/02
On March 16, it was reported that Korean telecommunication companies and credit card companies were sharing data to the government to assist tracking the movement of its citizens.
It followed reports from earlier in the month that the government had launched an app to monitor citizens on lockdown to help contain the outbreak.
In a story byThe Guardian texts messages sent by health authorities and local district offices were also reportedly exposing “an avalanche of personal information and are fuelling social stigma.”
Italy – 14/03/20
Like Germany, the UK and Austria, Italian mobile operators have also been shown to be sharing aggregated location data with health ministries.
In a bid to control the virus in a country that has now registered more Coronavirus-related deaths than China, the location data is thought to have to helped local authorities monitor citizens’ responses to its lockdown measures.
According to a report by The Guardian, over 40,000 Italians have been found to be violating the lockdown measures.
Belgium – 12/03/20
On March 11, the Belgian government confirmed that it would allow local mobile operators to share anonymised data with a third party to help track the spread of the virus.
The following week, a group of technology entrepreneurs argued in favour of creating app to track and regulate individuals’ movement based on their health status.
Iran – 03/03/20
On Tuesday, March 3, Iranian citizens received a notification about a new app supposedly from the Ministry of Health.
The app, called AC19, was created by the same developer that has made clones of Telegram in the past.
The app is thought to have collected citizens’ live location that it may have shared with the regime to track users’ movement.
“Of course, the app couldn’t tell citizens if they had coronavirus. But what it could do is hoover up huge amounts of data on citizens, including names, addresses, dates of birth, and even track people’s location in real time.” VICE
The following week, the app was removed from Google’s Play Store.
Singapore – 01/03/20
At the end of February, Singapore’s Ministry of Health made information about victims of the virus available to the public. Following this, a developer turned the information into an interactive map so that citizens’ could track the location of those infected.
The map quickly went viral, raising fears that it could lead to discrimination, stigmatisation and gross digital privacy violations.
“We must demand more from authorities as the role of big data and technology in humanitarian response matures.” Access Now
Taiwan – 18/02/20
According to ABC News, Taiwan’s government granted all medical facilities access to patients’ travel histories by combining data from the National Health Insurance Administration and Immigration Agency on February 18.
The report also suggests that those required to self-quarantine were “monitored through their cellphones.”
The cabinet spokeswoman told The Guardian that the government “are not using advanced surveillance technology. It’s simply tracking based on their phone’s sim cards and their nearby base stations.”
The country’s response to the virus has been lauded by many, although concerns regarding the high degree of surveillance remain in some quarters.
Netanyahu referenced Taiwan’s use of accessing mobile phone data in his address to the nation that outlined Israel’s more draconian approach.