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.
Singapore – 14/09/20
Singapore introduced Bluetooth contact-tracing tokens for its residents in September in an attempt to help slow the spread of the virus. The tokens were an important way of expanding contact tracing efforts to those without smart phones.
As the BBC reported, “The initial rollout is happening in areas with a greater concentration of elderly people, who are both at a greater health risk from Covid-19 and less likely to own a smart phone.”
Brazil – 10/07/20
In a positive move, Brazil’s Supreme Court overruled a government order that forced telecommunications companies to share user data with authorities.
According to the Global Data Review: “Privacy advocates have hailed the judgment has a historic win, but warned that the court’s decision could lead to unintended consequences – by allowing other government agencies to set precedent on data protection issues before the country’s data protection authority is established.”
New Zealand – 07/07/20
Hamish Walker, a New Zealand politician, leaked the personal details of COVID-19 patients to the media in July. The data was acquired by Michelle Boag, the chief executive of a rescue helicopter trust, who then passed it to the politician. According to the Guardian: “The incident has shocked New Zealanders and is being viewed as the first smear attempt of the upcoming general election.”
Israel – 24/06/20
Just a matter of weeks after the controversial tracking measure was halted, Israel’s parliament voted to reintroduce Shin Bet’s Covid-19 digital tracking initiative on June 24.
Chile – 19/06/20
Telecommunications companies in Chile confirmed they were passing user data to public authorities in a bid to monitor the movements of citizens. According to one report, the data is “aggregated and anonymous.”
Israel – 09/06/20
On Tuesday 09 June, an Israeli official announced that the country’s internal security service had brought its cell-phone tracking operation to an end.
The official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters: “This (tracking) will be renewed only if there is a big outbreak, at which point snap legislation would be required in parliament.”
The use of the technology, which was originally designed to counter terrorism, had previously been challenged in court.
Morocco – 29/05/20
In an article published on 29 May, entitled ‘Morocco’s coronavirus surveillance system could tip into Big Brother,’ Aziz Chahir argued that the country’s recently deployed digital tracking apps risked plunging the country “further into a hyper-surveillance system.”
According to the article, Morocco had purchased much of the technology from Israel.
China – 26/05/20
On May 26, the Guardian reported that authorities in Hangzhou had announced their intentions of making a COVID-19 app permanent.
According to the article, the app is similar to many deployed around the country that displays a “QR code with an individual’s virus status, which can be used to determine the extent to which the individual is allowed to move about.”
The new, broader app is thought to provide every citizen with a score out of 100 and record information including the number of cigarettes smoked, hours slept and steps taken by the user.
India – 11/05/20
On May 11 it was reported that an app used by the Madhya Pradesh government designed to track COVID-19 patients had leaked personal information online.
According to an article published by the Hindustan Times: “The database contained the names of people who are meant to be quarantined, information about the type of phone they used and their last known location – at times as accurate as within 5 metres – and was available for download on an mp.gov.in website.”
After its discovery, the database was quickly taken offline.
Jordan – 08/05/20
On 08 May, the Prime Ministry of Jordan Facebook’s page posted a video announcing a new app called Cradar.
The app is designed to allow citizens inform authorities about unauthorised gatherings and warn them if they suspect someone of having the virus. It is one of many apps developed by authorities in Jordan.
Other apps include a contact tracing app and an app designed to help authorities enforce quarantine measures.
In early May, EURACTIV reported that the Hungarian government had announced plans to temporarily suspend parts of the European-wide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
According to the article, the new measures “include the suspension of the rights to access and erasure of personal information, and those who lodge a complaint or exercise their right to a judicial remedy will also have to wait for the proceedings to start until after the government proclaims an end to the state of danger.”
Opposition politician Bernadett Szél responded by saying “restricting data rights is unnecessary and disproportionate, and furthermore does not help, even hinders the fight against the epidemic” in a statement.
In a recent report by Freedom House, the NGO said that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary has … dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions.”
Turkey – 07/05/20
According to Human Rights Watch, on April 07 Turkey’s health minister announced a mandatory app for people thought to be infected with COVID-19.
According to the organisation: “The app follows the movement of people instructed to self-isolate, and if they leave their homes, they receive a warning via SMS and are contacted instantly through automatic call technology and told to return to isolation.”
“Those who fail to comply with the warning and continue to violate the quarantine are reported to relevant law enforcement and face administrative measures and sanctions, which can include jail time ranging from two months to a year in accordance with Article 195 of Turkish Penal Code,” the organisation continues.
Russia – 05/05/20
According to an article published on May 05, citizens of Moscow who have developed symptoms of the virus have been asked to send three selfies daily to authorities to prove that they are remaining inside.
According to a Tweetby journalist Mathew Luxmoore, failure to comply could lead to fine of 4,000 roubles, approximately $55.
Malaysia – 04/05/20
Authorities in Selangor have introduced a new COVID-19 digital tracking system aimed at preventing the spread of the virus as the city emerges from a lockdown.
According to an article in the Malay Mail, “The system aims to support registered business or commercial premises owners by providing them with unique QR codes that can be placed on posters and scanned by visitors who enter their premises.”
Customers will then be required to scan the QR code before entering and, if they later test positive for the virus the businesses will be alerted.
On April 23, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was helping monitor citizens with technology originally designed for tracking potential militants.
According to VOA: “Rights activists say they fear the surveillance method could be misused by authorities to gain more access into the lives of Pakistani civilians, particularly those who are critical of the government.”
Morocco – 23/04/20
An app that monitors citizens location was launched in Morocco in April to assist police forces with enforcing lockdown measures.
According to MAP officials quoted in The Star, the app lets police “know which checkpoints a person has passed through, allowing them to trace their movements” but “conforms to the rigorous security criteria used by the DGSN in its databases.”
Brazil – 17/04/20
On April 17, the Brazilian government passed legislation to allow the passing of telecommunication data to public bodies. The legislation was later struck down by the Supreme Court.
Finland – 14/04/20
Mobile operator Telia published a press release stating that it had passed on anonymised phone location data to the government, prompting a review from the Office of the Chancellor of Justice.
According to one report, “The cabinet’s coronavirus war room uses the data provided by the app to analyse situations such as traffic flows in various parts of the country.”
Kazakhstan – 08/04/20
According to Privacy International, the “Kazakhstani ministry of health requires the 8,000 or so Kazakhstani citizens currently under quarantine to use the SmartAstana tracking app, which enables officials to ensure that they remain in isolation.”
In Almaty, the country’s largest city, authorities are also using video surveillance to help track those breaking quarantine orders. The technology is produced by Korkem Telecom, a local telecommunications firm, according to an article by the Jamestown Foundation.
Sweden – 08/04/20
According to a report by Computer Sweden published on April 08, “The Swedish Public Health Agency will use mobile data from Telia to analyze how people have moved in Sweden in connection with the spread of the coronavirus in the country.”
Australia – 05/04/20
According to an article published by The Sydney Morning Herald: “Vodafone has provided the mobile phone location data of several million Australians in an anonymised and aggregated form to the federal and NSW governments to monitor whether people are following social distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
“To date, governments, medical experts and the media have used location data from transport apps such as CityMapper, which shows how people move throughout cities like Sydney and Melbourne using public transport, in an attempt to determine whether people’s movement has reduced,” the story continues.
India – 05/04/20
On April 5, India Today reported the introduction of a new contact tracing app created by the Karnataka government.
According to the article, “the app aims to track the movement history of persons tested positive, before their detection in order to take precautions and to contain the coronavirus outbreak.”
According to an article published the following day in Citizen Matters, “the governments of Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the National Informatics Centre (NIC) have released various mobile apps.”
Rohini Lakshane writes that “while desperate times understandably call for desperate measures, many of these mobile phone-based interventions raise concerns about the privacy of users and that of persons directly affected by the novel coronavirus, overboard surveillance, and eventually, “function creep”.
On April 4, CNN reported that two tech startups had tracked citizens visiting the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by monitoring mobile phone location data.
One of the companies involved then posted a heat map on Twitter to show their findings.
Despite claiming to only use anonymised data, it has been repeatedly been shown that even large anonymised data sets are at risk of re-identification.
New Zealand – 02/04/20
In an article published on April 02, it was reported that police authorities in New Zealand were asking returning Kiwis to give consent to authorities to track their location via their mobile phones.
According to Police Commissioner Mike Bush, returning citizens “get a text from us [saying] ‘please reply, turn on your location services and if it is okay with you we will be able to monitor where you are.'”
India – 31/03/20
On March 31, it was reported that the Andhra Pradesh government was tracking mobile phones of those in quarantine. According to one report, the technology uses signals of mobile towers to track people’s location and monitor whether or not they are abiding with the lockdown measures.
India – 31/03/20
According to an article by India Today, authorities in the state of Andhra Pradesh are using a range of digital tracking technologies to ensure infected citizens remain in quarantine.
According to the article, “The first tool which is called the Covid alerting tracking system is being used by the authorities to track over 25,000 people who have been placed under home quarantine by tracking the location of their phones on a real-time basis with the help of telecom service providers and mobile tower signals.”
Argentina – 30/03/20
At the end of March, the big data firm Grandata released a heat map showing the movement of citizens around Argentina to monitor compliance with new lockdown measures.
Privacy International have written: “this is the perfect example of the data exploitation industry and data brokers, using data that users probably where not aware they were sharing with third parties like Grandata”
U.S. – 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.”
According to a report by Reuters, “Switzerland has asked state-controlled Swisscom for day-old mobile phone data to help judge whether measures to restrict people’s movements and slow the coronavirus’s spread were working.”
Daniel Koch, head of infectious diseases at the federal health agency, said it “it had nothing to do with […] surveillance” as they were only acquiring data from the previous day.
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.”
Guatemala – 24/03/20
According to Privacy International, authorities in Guatemala have released an app to help spread information regarding the virus to its citizens. The app also collects “each user’s email address, social media account handles, age, personal interests, and geographic location, and asks permission to access files, calls, and audio, among others.”
According to an article published a week later, the app was developed in collaboration with Google and Friends of Israel.
UK – 24/03/20
Researchers from King’s College London and St. Thomas’ Hospitals, in collaboration with a health company ZOE, have released an app that allows citizens to self-report their health to provide data on the spread of the virus.
According to the project’s listing on GovLab’s living repository of data collaboratives in response to COVID-19: “This data, protected by the European Union’s GDPR, is then sent to King’s College London and the NHS.”
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.”
Morocco – 23/03/20
According to an article published in The Star, “Moroccan police have started using a mobile application in recent days to track violators of the kingdom’s lockdown in response to the coronavirus, according to the official MAP news agency.”
The app was developed by the country’s national security force and allows the police to know which checkpoints a person has passed through.
According to the article, “more than 53,000 people have been arrested since the start of a public health state of emergency on March 20.”
Spain – 23/03/20
According to GovLab’s repository of data collaboratives, telecommunications giant Telefonica have been working with Spanish authorities to provide “mobility insights for monitoring restrictions, detecting infection hotspots, [and] prediction of virus propagation.”
According to the listing, the project went live on March 23.
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.”
UK – 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
Thailand – 17/03/20
Arrivals to high risk areas of Thailand were given a SIM card that monitors their location for 14 days.
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.
Kenya – 08/03/20
According to an article in the BBC: “authorities in Kenya have been tracking mobile phones of people suspected to have Covid-19 as a way of enforcing a 14-day mandatory isolation period.”
South Korea – 06/03/20
On March 6, Max S. Kim published a story in the MIT Technology Review that covered a new app being used in South Korea to track citizens’ movements.
According to the article, the app “will also use GPS to keep track of their location to make sure they are not breaking their quarantine.”
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.