European mobile carriers will share location data to track COVID-19 spread

Jon Fingas
Associate Editor
AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

More governments are relying on phone location tracking in a bid to track and contain the spread of COVID-19. Eight European carriers, including Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile), Orange and Vodafone, have agreed to share phone location data with the European Commission to help measure the coronavirus' reach. That immediately raises privacy issues, but an official talking to Reuters stressed that the EC would protect users.

The data will be aggregated and anonymized, the official said. The Commission will also delete the info when the pandemic is over. The European Data Protection Supervisor also wants the Commission to "clearly define" the data it wants to collect, maintain transparency and limit access to epidemiologists and other relevant experts.

Separately, the World Health Organization has maintained that any technological assistance in fighting COVID-19 would have to protect human rights and privacy.

While this could alleviate some fears that the tracking would be used as a pretext to surveil EU residents, there are still concerns. No matter how trustworthy the EU may be, it's unclear just how effectively it might anonymize and secure that data. And while the height of the coronavirus outbreak might be relatively brief, it's not clear how long the crisis will last. There's a possibility the tracking could last longer than some would like.