Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.
Multiple European countries are considering tracking track users’ phone data to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, prompting worries from privacy advocates who say such digital surveillance could curtail civil liberties.
Britain, Germany and Italy are evaluating powerful and invasive tools that would map citizens’ personal interactions that could spread the virus. These proposed apps would use real-time phone data to pinpoint virus carriers and people they might have infected.
Such tools would mark a significant departure from existing European disease-surveillance efforts, which have until now focused on tracking people's movements with aggregated phone location data designed to not identify individuals.
Contact-tracing apps being considered by European governments would go well beyond what those governments are currently getting from wireless carriers to identify "hot spots" of disease and human concentration.
Authorities at the epicenter of Italy's outbreak have been using carrier data to highlight where people are ignoring stay-at-home orders. Data collected for Italian officials in the hard-hit northern state of Lombardy does not allow authorities to identify individuals but did show that 30 percent of phone users were out moving around over the weekend.
While legal safeguards exist in most democracies to protect digital privacy, the danger of the coronavirus could quickly compel policymakers to ignore them. On Friday, the European Union's Data Protection Authority cautiously endorsed putting privacy on pause during the public health emergency.
Italy's Lazio region has rolled out a voluntary app to assist people in quarantine or who think they've been in contact with others infected by the coronavirus. Poland has introduced a more intrusive app to enforce 14-day quarantine for an estimated 80,000 people. In South Korea, a compulsory app enforces self-isolation for those ordered to maintain it. Anyone violating quarantine could face an $8,400 fine or up to a year in prison.
Taiwan and Singapore also use smartphone apps to enforce quarantines via "electronic fences" that alert authorities when someone moves out of quarantine. Hong Kong health authorities use electronic wristbands to monitor all overseas travelers ordered into self-isolation.
Italy's minister of technological innovation, Paola Pisano, said on Monday that a government task force is putting out a request for tracking-app candidates on Tuesday and expects to evaluate them by the end of the week.
Europeans are closely examining the South Korean model of contact tracing, which involves the use of personal information including immigration, public transportation and credit card records in addition to location-tracking GPS data.
Michael Parker, an ethicist on an Oxford University team, said people are more likely to use a contact-tracing app if they're not coerced — and the greater the participation the better the odds of identifying "hot spots" and containing the virus.
Still, location data from wireless carriers alone can produce a lot of false positives. GPS data is often inaccurate as Ashkan Soltani, a former U.S. Federal Trade Commission chief technologist, noted and could inaccurately identify strangers as coinciding when they're actually just in the same high-rise apartment building.
The closest analogues in the U.S. are apps from startups K Health and Buoy Health that let people self-diagnose with an online questionnaire. If their symptoms are consistent with COVID-19, the individual can be connected with a medical professional to determine the next steps.
New York-based K Health shares data with the government for a "heat map" of virus spread but says it is keeping personal data private.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.