Brussels wants an operator in each country to provide data from mobile phones to combat COVID-19

After having announced its intention to use smartphone metadata to control user mobility, an option that has been taken by several countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission confirmed today that it will choose one operator per state Member State, including in Portugal, to collect anonymous data from citizens through the location of mobile phones, analyzing their mobility, during confinement, to contain the pandemic, writes the agency Lusa.

We want to work with one (telecommunications) operator per Member State to obtain a representative sample. Having one operator per Member State also means that aggregated and anonymous data cannot be used to track individual citizens, which is not at all our intention, since not everyone has the same operator, indicates the official source of the community executive in written reply sent Lusa.

Noting that the details of this initiative are still being defined, the same source points out that the idea is to analyze mobility patterns, including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts and, therefore, the risks of spread.

According to the indication, this type of general tracking of citizens in the European Union (EU) would be an important – and proportional – contribution to the tools for monitoring the spread of the virus, allowing to evaluate the measures implemented to contain the pandemic in each State -member.

Europe guarantees data anonymization

The option of using mobile phone data has already been taken in several countries, including the United States and Israel, but the list has been growing, leading to concerns from various organizations regarding privacy.

The European Commission's explanations come after a week ago, the European Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, held a video conference with executive presidents of European telecommunications companies and the GSMA, the operators' association, in which they asked companies to sharing anonymous metadata from users to model and predict the spread of the virus. This meeting was attended by those in charge of telecommunications companies such as Vodafone, Orange, Telefnica, among others.

After this data collection done by the operators, it would be up to the Joint Research Center, the European Commission's internal scientific service, to receive such data, model it and share it with the Member States. There would be no sharing with third parties.

The data would only be kept as long as the pandemic was active, being erased shortly thereafter, the same source said, guaranteeing full respect for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy legislation, which provides for the protection of personal data in electronic communications. In the case of the GDPR, exceptions are allowed in situations of public interest in the area of ​​public health, flexibility that the European Commission wants to take advantage of to create this database.

There is still no date for the project to move forward, but Brussels wants this to happen as quickly as possible, and it also depends on the operators.

At stake is a statistical model based on mobility patterns, which will analyze citizens' mobility patterns (making comparison day and night) and correlate them with the spread of the new coronavirus.

In addition to the Member States, this project is carried out in collaboration with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and other European Commission services.