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four questions about using telephone data to fight the epidemic

Like what is done in Italy, the telephone operator Orange says it is ready to help the French authorities with “statistical indicators”, using data from our mobile phones, to fight against the coronavirus.

Locating individuals and analyzing their movements using their mobile phone, to fight against the coronavirus pandemic, this is practiced in many countries. The subject is emerging in France, but is subject to debate concerning the respect of personal data.

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What can telephone data for coronavirus be used for?

China, Hong Kong, Israel and Italy have used, to varying degrees, the information contained in residents' mobile phones to control the population or verify that confinement is being respected. In France, telecom operators “are ready to work directly with the competent authorities”, said Arthur Dreyfuss, president of the French Telecommunications Federation (FFT), in a statement sent to franceinfo. They are at the disposal of the public authorities to assist the government in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, continues the president of the FFT, especially with the anonymized data available to telecom operators. “

The Orange group tells franceinfo to work “currently with Inserm and the prefectures in order to be able to supply the authorities with statistical indicators within a few days”. Statistics built “in full compliance with the regulations on personal data”, provides the telecommunications group.

According to Orange, three objectives are targeted. First, it’s about “to assess the population delta by zone 'before containment' and 'after containment'” which should allow “better pre-size the care system”. The statistics collected will also allow “to estimate the mobility by zone to verify the effectiveness of the containment measures”. According to the telecommunications group, “the authorities could then assess collective discipline, and adapt the measures taken at the national or local level”. Finally, the indicators would allow “to improve forecast epidemiological estimates by area”, and “to adapt the care system in real time”.

Can respect for personal data be guaranteed?

Yes, answers Orange. The operator does not give more details on how the data is recovered. In France, collecting data from cell phones is not “technically not very complicated”, explains Arthur Messaud, member of La Quadrature du Net. But, for the lawyer of this association for the defense of digital freedoms, the legal framework to process this kind of data is unclear. “Since 2015 and the law on intelligence, intelligence services have been able for economic or even scientific interests to request telecommunications operators for location data for people, says Arthur Messaud. They can even request them in real time “.

The lawyer doubts respect for the anonymity of these data: “We don't really see how they would do it. We have to compare the different data over time, and see where the cellphone of a particular person is bound to check, for x days and x weeks, if this same person bound or not in other places “.

The use of data to track people over time by public authorities would therefore be for the association a “fairly frontal violation of European rules” in terms of personal data protection. “The location data of phones or even computers can only be processed in three cases: if they are anonymous, with the consent of the people and for public safety. And in the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), it is specified that public health issues do not fall within the domain of public security. “

In an interview with the newspaper The Parisian, Sunday March 22, criminologist Alain Bauer recommends this use of the data contained in our mobile phones: “When you enter any department store, you immediately receive advertising on your cellphone, it's the same thing. Let's use for sanitary purposes what we are currently using for commercial purposes.”

Will France use this data?

During the examination of the bill establishing the health emergency, Bruno Retailleau and Patrick Chaize, two parliamentarians Les Républicains, proposed an amendment where “any measure aimed at allowing the collection and processing of health and location data is authorized for a period of six months”. An amendment which according to elected officials was aimed “to facilitate the procedures imposed on operators in the collection and processing of health and location data”. The amendment was rejected at first reading in the Senate.

As for the collaboration mentioned by Orange with the authorities, the CEO of the group Stéphane Richard told the newspaper last week Le Figaro to work in order to allow epidemiologists to model the spread of the disease “. Stéphane Richard says that “in such use, the geolocation data is anonymized. But despite that, it would require regulatory adjustments and an agreement from the CNIL”. Nothing has therefore yet been officially launched on the side of the authorities.

The CEO of Orange insists that these data could also be used to measure the effectiveness of containment measures, as in Italy “.

And the other countries, what do they do with these data in concrete terms?

In Lombardy, according to the daily Il Corriere della Sera, the telephone operators made available to the region data concerning the passage of a mobile telephone from one telephone terminal to another. As of March 18, authorities knew that confinement was respected by 60% of the population. This figure is too low in this Italian region which is the most affected by the coronavirus epidemic. “It is not a control to monitor a phone per se”, indicates the daily, because “the law on the respect of the private life would not allow it, but of a technology which makes it possible to control the decrease in the movements of people compared to a given period”.

But control to contain the epidemic thanks to new technologies is even more tight in Asian countries, indicates the AFP. People in quarantine in Taiwan receive a smartphone with GPS and are monitored by the authorities through the Line messaging app. Those who do not respect their quarantine risk a million Taiwanese dollars (30,000 euros) fine and the publication of their names. In China, mobile applications provide a QR code, the color of which depends on visits (or not) to places classified as risky, and which is based on the analysis of trips made by users. This QR code has become almost compulsory in several cities in order to get out of stations or use public transport.

In Hong Kong, since March 19, the authorities have forced all those arriving from abroad to wear a bracelet on their wrist. The device is linked to an application that you download to your phone before starting two weeks of quarantine at home. Authorities can check the person's location in real time to make sure there is no spread of the virus. And for people who did not have a bracelet, they receive a video call from the police every day, which checks the number of people present, with a photo in support.

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