Friday

27th Nov 2020

Coronavirus

Privacy issues arise as governments track virus

  • Mass tracking of people's smartphone data on movements and location worries privacy campaigners (Photo: Ann Wuyts)

Digital rights defenders are now raising the alarm over government-led emergency efforts to use personal data to curtail the spread of Covid-19.

"We need to make sure it doesn't lead to surveillance after the outbreak," Estelle Massé, a senior policy analyst at the Access Now, told EUobserver last week.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Mass tracking of people's smartphone data on movements and location is one such worry.

Although the EU's general data protection regulation (GDPR) gives people ownership over their data, it also allows competent public health authorities and employers to process it when a pandemic strikes.

That point was driven home by the head of the EU's data protection board Andrea Jelinek, who warned governments any extra processing of personal data must not be irreversible.

She said location data in principle can only be used when made anonymous or with the consent of individuals.

Jelinek noted the EU's ePrivacy directive, for example, enables member states to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security.

"Such exceptional legislation is only possible if it constitutes a necessary, appropriate and proportionate measure within a democratic society," she said.

Germany, for instance, earlier this month amended its GDPR-enabling legislation to allow for processing personal data in the event of an epidemic.

Poland's threaten to send the police

But some practices and proposals floated among EU states appear to be already pushing the boundaries of what is legal.

In Poland, a government ministry has rolled out an 'Home Quarantine' application that requires people in isolation to take geo-located selfies of themselves.

Once an SMS is sent instructing them to snap a photo, they have 20 minutes or risk having police dispatched to their homes.

In France, an amendment to an emergency bill is asking lawmakers to rubber-stamp telecoms data collection for six months.

Belgium proposed three months. The plan, first floated by two tech entrepreneurs and later endorsed by the government, requested telecom data from all Belgians.

Meanwhile, Austrian telecom operator A1 has granted limited government access to anonymised location data for only the first two Saturdays in March.

Telecom operators are also offering up people's data elsewhere in Europe.

German mobile operator Deutsche Telekom is sharing anonymised users' movement data with the Robert-Koch Institute. The data is being used to see if people respect government restrictions in the wake of the pandemic.

In Italy, Vodafone is producing an aggregated and anonymous heat map for the Lombardy region to help the authorities better understand population movements.

"It may become increasingly important for governments to understand people's movements to contain the spread of the virus, especially inside and to/from areas under quarantine," it said, in a statement.

Critics warn that even anonymised data has potential pitfalls.

"Monitoring the movements of all citizens - even without names - does not protect anyone from infection, but it makes unprecedented mass surveillance possible," said German MEP and Pirate Party member Patrick Beyer, in a statement.

He said the analysis of bulk location data risks setting a precedent for real-time identification of people that may seek to challenge those in power later on.

The Big Brother approach to data collection on national security grounds has already landed Belgium, France and the United Kingdom at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Although the case is still ongoing, an opinion earlier this year by the advocate general said such measures must be targeted, temporary and used only in cases of imminent danger.

MEPs vote by email on new coronavirus measures

MEPs will vote via email on emergency legislation to help countries and companies in the wake of the spread of coronavirus. The plenary sessions are to held in Brussels until July instead of Strasbourg.

EU commission to stockpile strategic medical gear

The EU executive wants to set up a reserve of cricial medical gear, which it would finance almost entirely. It could already be operational next week. There is a "scarcity" of such equipment globally.

Analysis

Will coronavirus torpedo the Green Deal?

2020 was supposed to be the crunch year in the fightback against climate change. However, the coronavirus pandemic has flattened Europe and beyond, which is likely to slow down international negotiations to fight climate change

Analysis

Coronavirus: Are we trading privacy for security?

The response of EU countries to the coronavirus outbreak has prompted unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation. Privacy campaigners, and MEPs, have warned of future adverse side-effects.

News in Brief

  1. Brexit talks pick up pace once more
  2. MEPs back US trade detente
  3. Iran diplomat to stand trial in Belgium over 'France bomb plot'
  4. Trump says he'll leave if Biden wins Electoral College vote
  5. EU Parliament: Polish abortion ban risks womens' lives
  6. UN experts warn against racial profiling
  7. EU auditors raise red flag over maritime protection
  8. Four students charged in France's beheading case

Pandemic exposed gulf in EU digital-schooling

EU states who invested in digital education were better able to protect students from the pandemic, a new report has said. Meanwhile, poor and rural pupils were worse off.

EU seeks more health powers after dubious Covid-19 response

After the lack of coordination evidenced during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Commission put forward a set of proposals to strengthen the preparedness of members states in cross-border health threats.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  2. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersUN Secretary General to meet with Nordic Council on COVID-19
  4. UNESDAWell-designed Deposit Return Schemes can help reach Single-Use Plastics Directive targets
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector

Latest News

  1. Erdoğan jails hundreds for life, as EU weighs relations
  2. Italian energy giant director advising EU foreign policy chief
  3. Poland and Hungary say rule-of-law link needs treaty change
  4. Portuguese presidency to focus on social rights and India
  5. The under-reported power struggle at the top of the OSCE
  6. Poland hammered on women's rights in EU debate
  7. EU 'front-line' states want clearer migration rules
  8. Von der Leyen tells Poland and Hungary to go to court

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us