The UK information rights regulator allows phone tracking in order to help battle with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The rest of the world is still arguing whether this is a fair practice under data protection concerns and borderline privacy infringement or not.
The contagion is spreading rapidly despite people staying at home. The government is looking at more stern measures now as compared to before. The UK Government has been criticised globally for taking one of the most delayed actions against public movement and mobility during this crisis. This announcement shows that the government is employing more extreme measures rather than passive ones now.
The tracking mobile phones of an entire population will yield a lot of sensitive and private data of the whole population living in the country. This can be the harbouring ground for cybercrimes, data mismanagement and cyber risks. However, the greater good here at play is the goal to contain the COVID-19 spread.
Taiwan and Israel have also announced similar policies in an attempt to track people and manage the spread. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has waived a green flag to this. ICO overlooks public information rights in the UK. It is independent of the rest of the government, however. This indication may be a sign that ICO is ready to give in to the administration in order to value human life over human liberties.
Mass-scale surveillance of citizens of a democratic country can be a drastic shift of policies and a very slippery slope. Perhaps, the ends justify the means with the horrid ongoing global pandemic.
In his statement, ICO deputy commissioner, Steve Wood, states that accessing generalized location data does not violate data protection laws since they are “anonymized and aggregated.”
Individuals are not being personally identified by the data, thus it can be argued that it is not a breach of their privacy. Plus, ICO insists that sufficient safeguards are in place, to ensure compliance with the legal rights of individuals.
In the US a similar policy is in effect whereby their government is obtaining big data from advertisers, rather than service providers which are the case here in the UK.
The major concern here is that this can lay a problematic precedent for future policies within a democracy. It can also be used as a shield against public scrutiny in other countries using the UK as a political or though role model where the safety of the society and their rights may not be guaranteed. The long-term effects of this are still unknown. Whether the data will be disposed of once the pandemic is over? Stored or repurposed? We do not know yet.