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Europe requests data from telephone operators to assess the effect of containment measures

Thierry Breton in Brussels, February 19. Yves Herman / REUTERS

Europeans' personal data will be used against the Covid-19 pandemic: the European Commission has indeed asked telephone operators in several countries to provide aggregated data on their mobile subscribers to better understand and anticipate developments of the Covid-19 pandemic. The request was made by Thierry Breton, the current European Commissioner for the internal market – who is also a former manager of France Télécom – directly to the GSMA, an association representing 750 players in the mobile telephone sector worldwide.

The idea, the French commissioner's office is told, is “Analyze the population density over time to see the link between containment measures and the spread of the virus, with the clear objective of anticipating peaks of contamination”. The speed of spread of the epidemic being directly linked to compliance with confinement, the Commission wants to give European researchers from the Joint Research Center, recipients of the data, the means to help local authorities to “Size” the care offer correctly by verifying, using mobile data, “If the confinement instructions are applied”.

Data have not yet been provided and statistical work has therefore not started. But no European operator has shown any refusal, it was reported to Thierry Breton’s office on Wednesday, March 25. The first information should arrive “In the coming days”. Only one operator per country should be designated, large enough for its data to be statistically representative of population movements in its country. In France, Orange was chosen. Telecom Italia (for Italy) and Telefonica (in Spain) were also contacted.

“It is not like what has been done in China”

This call came after certain operators have already started sharing this type of data with their national authorities. The European Commission now hopes to work towards centralization and rationalization in this area. Thierry Breton’s law firm assures him that this project is perfectly within the nails of privacy legislation, both the ePrivacy directive and the European Regulation on the protection of personal data (GDPR).

Mobile phone subscriber data will be subject to purely statistical processing

First, the data of subscribers to mobile phone services (which can be collected, for example, when a SIM card connects to a relay antenna) will be subject to purely statistical processing: they will not be directly accompanied by identifiers, but aggregated into large masses and, therefore, “Anonymous”. “It does not resemble closely or far what is done in China or Korea, where the users are traced individually to see if they respect the confinement individually”, we assure Mr. Breton's cabinet. Researchers should be able to assess the effect of containment measures “At the postal code scale” not a neighborhood or even a city.

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As the European Commission becomes responsible for this personal data, it will be subject to the supervision of the data protection authority of the European institutions, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS). Its teams confirm that they have been “Consulted” by the Commission and confirm that the project, using “Aggregated information”, will not allow “Trace individuals”. “Based on the information available, [ce projet] is indeed anonymous “, said a spokesman for the organization, saying it was paying close attention to the aftermath of the operations.

Orange in close collaboration with Inserm

Telephone operators have been used in many countries around the world to understand the epidemic, assess containment measures, and in some cases even monitor their application at the individual level. In Austria, Italy or the United Kingdom, statistical studies on the telephone database have already been undertaken or are in the planning stage, not without controversy on the question of personal data.

In France, Orange is already working closely with the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) by providing it with aggregated mobile geolocation data. However, we are far from certain systems implemented, for example in South Korea, Taiwan or Israel, where telephone data allow the authorities to detect and identify people who do not comply with containment measures and, if necessary , to sanction them.

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