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Many countries are fighting big data surveillance against the pandemic

At the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Center on March 2. The use of personal data to fight the pandemic is already the subject of debate. Virginia Mayo / AP

Using personal data to curb the Covid-19 pandemic: the idea is slowly gaining ground around the world. Applied or envisaged, the methods differ, but the logic is common: since the very virulent coronavirus spreads with the movements of populations, using the mass of personal digital data generated by our smartphones can help understand the way in which the virus progresses or even guide quarantine decisions.

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An application imagined in Oxford

In this context, a multidisciplinary team of researchers – epidemiology, virology, mathematics in particular – from the British University of Oxford have imagined and started the development of an application which, installed on a smartphone, permanently geolocates its owner.

If the latter is diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2, the application immediately notifies all owners of the application who have been in close contact with it. Depending on their proximity, the application orders them to put themselves in complete containment or simply to maintain a safe distance from the people they meet. It can also give instructions to the authorities so that they can disinfect the places where the infected person went.

The Oxford research team mathematically modeled the impact of this application taking into account the known characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 – their publication has not been published at this stage in a scientific journal. According to the researchers, their device would make it possible to curb the epidemic without paralyzing the country: this while the government of Boris Johnson still refuses to order containment similar to those in force in Italy, France or Spain.

Currently working with the National Health Service teams to concretely develop their tool, Oxford teams also claim “Support several European governments to explore the feasibility of a mobile application for instant contact tracking”. Joined by The world, these researchers had not yet answered our questions to date. In France, the cabinet of Cédric O, the Secretary of State for Digital, however, informed the World that no project of this type is currently under study in France.

Data transmitted to the authorities

From the end of February, the Chinese authorities, in partnership with the digital giant Alibaba, deployed in the provinces most affected an application to the similar principle. Each user has a barcode in three colors: red, he is prohibited from leaving his home for two weeks; yellow, he is asked to quarantine for seven days; green, it can come and go freely. The color is determined, in a rather opaque manner, on the basis of the last movements of its owner and the probability that he has encountered patients.

Barcodes, verified and “flashed” at the entrance to shops and public transport, make it possible to geolocate their owner. But the application also has a real-time localization capacity: depending on the New york times, the information collected by the application is sent to the police.

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Israel follows this same logic, but without a dedicated application and without its citizens being informed. Thanks to the means of anti-terrorism, the Hebrew State’s internal intelligence service can now access the location of Israel’s phones to locate people who have been in close contact with a patient and order them to confine themselves. A decision criticized by privacy advocates.

Austria is also expected to see an app for the fight against Covid-19. Less invasive, it will not follow the movements but will allow two people who have been in contact to indicate it on the application. If one of them is infected, the application sends an alert to the people it has encountered.

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European law does not prohibit it

Personal data, in particular the data of telephone operators, is also used to ensure compliance with quarantine measures, such as in South Korea or Taiwan. This is also the case in Italy, where the authorities receive data from telephone operators, two health officials from the Lombardy region have explained in recent days. The British government also obtained this type of information from one of the main telephone operators in the country, according to the channel. Sky News. In both cases, these data do not, at this stage, provide them with access to individual situations but allow them to obtain aggregated trends.

Of course, this type of solution raises questions about privacy. “People should be able to democratically decide whether or not to use this platform”, Oxford researchers say about their application. Especially since this system “Can have significant impacts even with partial adoption” of the application. “The intention is not to impose technology as a permanent change in society”, say the researchers again.

The prospect of collecting data to fight the pandemic is already worrying specialized associations. “The government must resist any security leakage” and “Commit to immediately making transparent all the population surveillance measures implemented to combat the spread of Covid-19”, warned La Quadrature du Net, an NGO specializing in the defense of digital freedoms, Thursday, March 19.

In theory, it is possible to reconcile such an application with European personal data law: if the data is collected by the State, the latter could justify this collection by carrying out a mission of public interest or safeguarding vital interests. Provided in particular that the data thus obtained are perfectly protected, are not subject to any sharing to third parties and are deleted as soon as they become obsolete.

GAFA in dance?

The US administration is in talks with several large digital companies to give better access to the geolocation data they collect from their users to fight the pandemic, according to the Washington Post. The idea would be, the American daily explains, to aggregate this personal data so as to make it anonymous and use it to follow the spread of the new coronavirus and anticipate the areas where it will spread.

“This information is greatly exaggerated”, Mark Zuckerberg reacted to a press conference on Wednesday, March 18, a few hours after the article was published. “At this point, we are not aware of any active discussion with the United States government, or anyone, about access to data,” said the CEO of Facebook. However, would it be willing to share its users' data more widely to fight the pandemic? “My answer would be no, but it is hypothetical, since nobody asked us”, he replied, questioned on this point by The world.

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