Government may start tracking your phones

Location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases could help track and trace the spread of infection.

COVID-19 could invade your privacy

Patrick Fair, Deakin University

Borders, beaches, pubs and churches are closed, large events are cancelled, and travellers are subject to 14 days’ isolation – all at significant cost to taxpayers and the economy. But could telecommunications technology offer a more targeted approach to controlling the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus?

One possibility is to use location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases, to help track and trace the spread of infection.

Some people can be contagious without knowing, either because they have not yet developed symptoms, or because their symptoms are mild. These individuals cannot be identified until they become sufficiently unwell to seek medical assistance. Finding them more quickly could help curb the spread of the disease.

This suggestion clearly raises complex privacy issues.

Read more: Explainer: what is contact tracing and how does it help limit the coronavirus spread?

All mobile service providers in Australia are required to hold two years of data relating to the use of each mobile phone on their network, including location information.

For anyone who tests positive with COVID-19, this data could be used to list every location where they (or, more accurately, their phone) had been over the preceding few weeks. Using that list, it would then be possible to identify every phone that had been in close proximity to the person’s phone during that time. The owners of those phones could then be tested, even though they may not necessarily have developed symptoms or suspected that they had come into contact with the coronavirus.

The government could do this in a systematic way. It could assemble everyone’s location history into a single, searchable database that could then be cross-referenced against the locations of known clusters of infection. This would allow contact tracing throughout the entire population, creating a more proactive way to track down suspected cases.

The privacy problem
You may well ask: do we want the government to assemble a searchable database showing the locations of almost every person over 16 in Australia over the past month?

Some people will undoubtedly find it a confronting prospect to be contacted by the government and told that surveillance analysis suggests they need to be isolated or tested. Others will be concerned that such a database, or the broad surveillance capability that underpins it, could be used to intrude on our privacy in other ways.

Several countries are already using mobile phone data in the fight against the coronavirus. The UK government is reportedly in talks with major mobile phone operators to use location data to analyse the outbreak’s spread.

India, Hong Kong, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Germany are also among the list of countries taking advantage of mobile data to tackle the pandemic.

The Singapore government has launched an app called Trace Together, which allows mobile users to voluntarily share their location data. Iran’s leaders have been accused of being rather less transparent, amid reports that its coronavirus ‘diagnosis’ app also logs people’s whereabouts.

Is it legal anyway?
We may well take the view that the privacy risks are justified in the circumstances. But does the Australian government actually have the power to use our data for this purpose?

The Telecommunications Act requires carriers to keep telecommunications data secure, but also allows federal, state and territory governments to request access to it for purposes including law enforcement, national security, and protecting public revenue.

Being infected with COVID-19 is not a crime, and while a pandemic is arguably a threat to national security, it is not specifically listed under the act. Limiting the outbreak would undoubtedly benefit public revenue, but clearly the primary intent of contact tracing is as a public health measure.

There is another law that could also compel mobile carriers to hand over users’ data. During a ‘human biosecurity emergency period’, the Biosecurity Act 2015 allows the federal health minister to take any action necessary to prevent or control the “emergence, establishment or spread” of the declared emergency disease. A human biosecurity emergency period was declared on Sunday 23 March.

Read more: Explainer: what are the laws mandating self-isolation and how will they be enforced?

In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate over the use of telecommunications data for surveillance purposes. The introduction of the mandatory data retention regime was contentious, as was the broad power granted to multiple agencies to access the data for law enforcement.

One reason for the controversy was the relatively low threshold for use of these laws: authorities could access data relating to any suspected offence punishable by three years or more in prison.

Australia is now facing a crisis that is in order of magnitude more serious. Many Australians would be willing to see their information used in this way if it saves lives, limits the economic impact, and impedes the spread of COVID-19.

The Commonwealth has the legal power to do it, the security and privacy issues can be managed, and the benefits may be significant.The Conversation

Patrick Fair, Adjunct Professor, School of Information Technology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    31st Mar 2020
    No way I would have a Government app on my phone, this is the start of losing more of our freedom and privacy and they are using this virus as an excuse to implement surveillance of as many people as possible.

    31st Mar 2020
    We have turned our mobiles off and taken out the batteries as we were being tracked.
    31st Mar 2020
    LOL thats funny what you have said might have been ok in the late 90's but not now, put your sim card in the fire, then you wont be tracked....
    31st Mar 2020
    Sim card expired ages ago so I leave it at home.
    31st Mar 2020
    That's what we want to know too? We knew what to look for and found it so for our own security and no knowing whether we were being tracked so they knew we weren't home or something more sinister we have decided to take action.

    We have also now found the house keys and are now locking the house too.
    31st Mar 2020
    I feel really sorry for any poor person who gets the chore of listening into my phone, they will probably die of boredom, long before any virus could get them.
    5th May 2020
    Please let us know how you knew you were being tracked?
    As far as I am aware the govt is not using the app yet.
    You can turn off your location without it affecting the app.
    We have been told the govt is not going to track us, and you can download the app through Google without having to open your location.
    There are millions of us - it would take millions of govt stooge to listen as some have suggested in their comments. If it wasn't so sad it would be funny.
    31st Mar 2020
    Your showing your age, you dont need an app on your phone, if you have a mobile phone your traceable......and dont think they are not doing it already and have been for some time...

    You lost your freedom with medicare card, drivers licence and car rego.....and the biggie Tax File Number and bank account....

    whats wrong with one more, cameras are everywhere you have Police and Sheriff's with ANPR recognition on your car...

    Privacy was in the 40's 50's 60' slowly but surely we are being weaned like good sheeple to comply.
    31st Mar 2020
    And why not. This incognito is just plain bloody selfish. He'll put peolple's lives at risk and moan about privacy and freedom. Well pal, when the WHOLE of society is at risk, your miserable "privacy" counts for nothing.

    You probably fiddle your tax returns too. Another thing that is coming to an end when we all exist in the cashless society.
    31st Mar 2020
    OMG what rubbish, you Ship cruising oldies are the problem out on the high seas crammed in like sardines, ready to catch anything on board thats going around.... Gastro was the big one now you cruising oldies are bringing the big one home.
    31st Mar 2020
    What the? I am staying home I do not need to be tracked!! How the hell am I putting anyone at risk? And how can you accuse me of fiddling tax returns? Please apologies for your accusations.
    31st Mar 2020
    And once they start tracking us they will never stop.
    Another victory for the CONTROL FREAKS!!!!

    Anyway, I rarely remember to take my phone with me, so they'll think I'm always at home.
    But I suppose the next step will be insertion of a tracking device under the skin at birth.
    31st Mar 2020
    Wow!. This subject certainly woke up the lefties. I don't have any problems with my location being tracked and would have thought that only those people who break the law, or have no compassion for the health of others, would object. But still, to those who are prone to rant and rave about what ever the government does (or doesn't do) al I can say is.....may you never run out of dunny paper!
    31st Mar 2020
    Well you go ahead Freddie, but don't accuse anyone who is commenting against it a leftie that is not warranted at all.

    31st Mar 2020
    It is unlawful and unconstitutional.
    It is in fact criminal and that's exactly what the so-called government has become, global mafia buddies !
    Morrison and Freydenburg have fried Australia for good !
    31st Mar 2020
    Not a problem. Mainly because I don’t own a mobile phone. Happy to put the app on if the Govt wants to buy me a phone.
    31st Mar 2020
    Dont you worry Mark they are listening and watching you from your smart TV, I'm sure you have one, dont you.
    1st Apr 2020
    Lol.I don't have a mobile phone or a smart TV.
    1st Apr 2020
    Lol.I don't have a mobile phone or a smart TV.
    1st Apr 2020
    There's no way that I will trust this current government with my location data. They've already tried to implement tracking of people through the geo location service on our phones, using the mantra "If you've done nothing wrong, there is no reason to fear". If they want to mass harvest people's location at will, this is a way that they can. If I can't turn off the location service on my mobile phone, I'll stop carrying it around. Too bad if anyone wants to urgently contact me, or if I need to make a call for help.

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