Brussels to choose telecoms operator in Portugal to spy on people in lockdown

The European Commission has announced that it is choosing a telecoms operator in each Member State to ‘gather citizens data anonymously through the tracking of mobile phones during the pandemic’.

The idea, says State news agency Lusa, is to “analyse mobility at a time of confinement”.

The word ‘spying’ is never used – but it is certainly the definition of ‘gathering data anonymously’.

In the hurly-burly of news reports on the daily developments of Covid-19, this appears to be one sound bite in the new Portuguese reality that somehow avoided the nation’s headlines.

SIC television news gave it space on its website late yesterday afternoon – citing answers posed by Lusa to ‘an official source’. But there appears to have been nothing actually broadcast on air.

Lusa’s information ran along the lines that “the idea is to analyse patterns of mobility, including the impact of measures of confinement on the intensity of contacts, and therefore the risks of propagation”.

According to the community source, “this type of general tracking of EU citizens would be an important and proportionate contribution for monitoring the spread of the virus, while also allowing for the evaluation of measures implemented to contain the pandemic” in each Member State.

Lusa puts the news into context. It comes a week after a video conference with telecoms bosses including Vodafone, Orange and Telefónica, called by European Commissioner Thierry Breton. 

In this conference, Breton “asked companies to share anonymous metadata from users to model and predict the spread of the virus”.

The data would go to the ‘Common Centre of Investigation’ and “there would be no sharing with third parties”.

The source assures that the “data would only be kept as long as the pandemic remains active, being erased shortly thereafter”, Lusa continues. “The same source guaranteed full respect for GDPR (general data protection regulation) as well as ePrivacy legislation”.

GDPR allows for ‘exceptions’ like this to its general rules, the source explained, “in situations of public interest in the area of public health”.

Says Lusa, “it’s a flexibility that the European Commission wants to take advantage of”.

“There is no date yet for this project to move forwards, but Brussels wants it to happen as soon as possible”. The time-line is also dependent on the operators themselves.

Mobile phone tracking in terms of Covid-19 has already been introduced in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Singapore. 

Writing only a week ago, the Independent said: “Thailand has rolled out a mobile app that anyone arriving at an airport must download to help monitor where they have been in the event that they test positive for the virus. Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, this week also launched a mobile app to help track cases, and it could be used to enforce quarantines”.

The Taiwanese system, says the paper, is so sophisticated that it alerts police and local officials if those in home-quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones.

The international press did pick up on the enormous significance of these changes. Business Insider for example cited a industry source as warning that the world “could slide into permanently increased surveillance”.

Said the source – who has compiled an index of ramped-up security measures throughout the world – “without adequate tracking there is a danger that these new, often highly invasive measures will become the norm. Although some may appear entirely legitimate many pose a risk to citizens’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression”.

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