Major telecommunications firms in Italy, Austria, and Germany are sharing data with health authorities to help monitor whether people are abiding by limitations on movement while claiming to respect privacy laws.

This is according to Reuters, which reports that network data in anonymous and aggregated form will be shared with authorities with the purpose of illuminating high concentrations of people, so-called “hot zones”, where the virus is particularly present.

It follows efforts by governments across Europe, which has quickly become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, to curb people’s movement and stem the spread of the virus.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom will share its data, while in Italy, Telecom Italia, Vodafone, and WindTre will volunteer their data. “Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large, anonymized datasets,” CEO Nick Read said.

Limiting movement is crucial, explained Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute: “If people remain as mobile as they were until a week ago, it will be difficult to contain the virus”.

While some of the most effective responses to the virus around the world, notably in Taiwan and South Korea, have employed smartphone location data to trace points of contact with individuals known to have tested positive or violations of quarantine directions, officials say these measures are much less invasive.

As some critics point out, not only is the sharing of such sensitive data problematic, it might also be ineffective as people could either leave their phones at home or just turn them off.

Austria’s measures are the product of the country’s largest telco A1 Telekom Austria and Graz University spin-off Invenium, which together will share the results of a motion analysis application, which is typically used to understand how flows of people affect traffic, will help confirm whether social-distancing suggestions from authority are effective.

Questions surround such use of data by governments, both because of its effectiveness as much as its legality. The GDPR does allow for some divergence from the rules if in the public interest.

Sourced from Reuters, Heise Online, Politico