Coronavirus: Govt looking into tracking phones to curb spread of COVID-19

COVID phone
Officials in Europe said data collected would be anonymised and deleted completely after the pandemic was over. Photo credit: Getty

Europeans might soon be tracked via their phones in an effort to control the spread of the virus behind COVID-19, and Kiwis might soon be too.

At present each nation is doing its own thing, but the European Commission (EC) wants to change that with "common rules" across the continent. 

"I fully support a European approach for the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic in line with our fundamental rights," said Vera Jourova, European Commissioner for values and transparency.

"We will ensure this approach is transparent, proportional and based on people's trust."

The European Commission fears letting each country track the spread of the virus in different ways will hamper the fight against it. SARS-CoV-2 has already killed at least 88,000 people across the world, and Europe has been hit particularly hard, especially Spain, Italy and the UK. 

Officials said data collected would be anonymised and deleted completely after the pandemic was over.

"It will not be shared with third parties and only be stored as long as the crisis is ongoing," the EC said on its site.

The New Zealand National Crisis Management Centre says a similar tracking scheme is being considered here.

"Contact tracing is an important tool for breaking the chain of transmission and reducing the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, our communities and our economy," a spokesperson told Newshub.

"Work to explore how technology, including apps, can make the process easier for the public and the health system is underway.  Apps under development and in use in other countries to carry out contact tracing will be considered. 

"All solutions being looked at will be carefully evaluated and put through robust and appropriate testing before being used to ensure they keep data safe and protect people's privacy."

Last weekend, Google released its own data on people's movements during the pandemic, showing New Zealand was leading the way when it comes to avoiding non-essential travel. That data was collected from users of its Android phone operating system who had opted to its Location History service.

Privacy Foundation chair Gehan Gunasekara on Monday told Newshub the Government has powers under legislation drafted in the wake of the Christchurch quakes to strip back Kiwis' privacy rights during a state of emergency that would allow an app like that being developed in Europe to be deployed here. 

A state of emergency was declared by Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi on March 25, the same day we went to pandemic alert level 4.

"New Zealand is not in a normal situation at the moment. So people need to recognise that normal legal rights, such as privacy, need to be put on hold up to a point," Gunasekara - also a law lecturer at the University of Auckland - he said.

"But of course once the crisis is over, we think that normal protections will once again apply."

The EC noted Europe has the strongest digital privacy protections in the world - the General Data Protection Regulation - and any app or tracking system deployed across the continent would have to fit these rules.

"They are fit also for this crisis, providing for exceptions and flexibility," said Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. "We work closely with data protection authorities and will come forward with guidance on the privacy implications soon."