Location tracking to support social distancing could infringe human rights

20 March 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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The UK’s government’s collaboration with network providers to monitor the success of its social distancing policy could be an infringement of the Human Rights Act.

Toni Vitale, partner and head of data protection at JMW Solicitors, said that although the data is anonymised – and location data is often scraped from devices – the distinction depends on how the data will be used in these circumstances.

 “I understand that the Government has approached O2, Vodafone, EE and Three about using phone signals as part of its efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. The data is anonymised so its use is in compliance with UK and EU data privacy laws but it may still be an infringement of the human right to privacy under the Human Rights Act,” said Vitale. 

 “A lot depends on how the data is used.  If it is limited to creating heat maps showing where people are congregating, that might be OK.  Some shopping centres already do this to show where shoppers are.  This is useful to plan exits, where the cafes should be placed etc.  Location data is commonly scraped from mobiles without users being aware,” he added.

 News reports have so far named O2, Vodafone, EE and Three and the measures would extend to public service announcements (PSAs) being made by text, in a similar fashion to how Canada is communicating with its citizens overseas. The development follows confirmation that those in the communications industry have been listed in the Government’s list of key workers.

 While mass government communication via mobile is an accepted way of life in such places as China and the Gulf states, it isn’t a widely used tool in other countries and territories.

 “There have been some outages as more people work from home so the network providers need to act sensitively as public support may dissipate if they are seen to be providing a poor service as well as helping the Government carry out mass surveillance.

 “The networks have pledged to increase network capacity to help cope with the demand and changing usage patterns throughout the day. O2 and Three have also waived data charges on all NHS UK websites.  Those working in the communications industry have been listed in the Government’s list of key workers.”