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European nations considering use of smartphone tracking in coronavirus fight

AS EUROPEAN nations consider the use of smartphone technology in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, concerns have been raised over privacy and abuse of civil liberties.

An app using real-time phone-location data would be used to track the movements of those with coronavirus and the people they come into contact with, according to the Fifth.com website.

The data would be used to help understand where the virus is most prevalent, how it is spread and where health authorities need to impose quarantines and other measures in a bid to contain the outbreak.

Britain, Germany and Italy are believed to be considering use of the technology, raising fears that such surveillance could be abused, lacking accountability and oversight.

Similar fears were raised in Israel last week after draconian legislation was passed in the early hours without reference to the appropriate oversight committee.

BT, which owns the EE network in Britain, confirmed last week that discussions about using its network to track the coronavirus were under way.

“We are talking with the government about a number of areas in which we may be able to assist with the national public health effort,” a BT spokesman said.

Mobile phone giant Vodafone also said it was working with Italian authorities on using its technology in the Lombardy region, the country’s most affected area.

Italian police are using drones as a way to enforce restrictions on people’s movements, setting public health and privacy concerns in conflict.

The new measures would mark a substantial difference from current practice by which European disease surveillance technology tracks movements using aggregated phone-location data, which does not identify individuals.

A group of rights campaigners wrote an open letter to the NHS in Britain on Monday saying: “These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies.”

But the technology has already been used successfully in a number of countries, including China, where the coronavirus outbreak began.

There, however, Chinese citizens have been asked to download an app that provides information, allows users to check and report symptoms and enables the health authorities to monitor the spread of the disease.

Robots have been used to deliver meals to coronavirus patients who are under quarantine, while Huawei and China Telecom established a 5G-enabled video diagnostic centre so that medics could carry out remote online consultations.

Britain’s chief medical officer Sir Patrick Vallance appears to have dismissed the use of tracking technology, however, saying that it would have been effective in January, not now.

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