UK Information Commissioner OKs use of phone data to track coronavirus spread

But Australia's PM declares it doesn't align with national values

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Map of UK with Coronavirus pin stuck in London

The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has provided advice to the government that it can use anonymised mobile phone data in the fight against coronavirus.

Deputy commissioner Steve Wood took to the interwebs on Saturday to state: "Generalised location data trend analysis is helping to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Where this data is properly anonymised and aggregated, it does not fall under data protection law because no individual is identified."

"In these circumstances, privacy laws are not breached as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place," the statement added, before concluding: "The ICO has provided advice about how data protection law can continue to apply flexibly to protect lives and data. The safety and security of the public remains our primary concern. We will continue to work alongside Government to provide advice about the application of data protection law during these unprecedented times."

Several nations – among them Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – are already using mobile phone data to track those with COVID-19, or new arrivals who are felt to be at risk of having encountered coronavirus carriers.

Now the UK has legal opinion that will let it join their ranks.

Privacy International, in a post made before the ICO announcement, suggested that any such use of data must be subject to "extraordinary protections" and pointed out that it is possible under some circumstances to deanonymise data.

No such problems in Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison replied to a question about the ICO advice, and whether Australia would adopt it, by saying: "Well the Australian government isn't doing that. What I want to be clear about is the policies and measures that we will put in place for Australia will be right for Australia. They will understand how Australia works and how Australia thinks and what our rules are and what our society understands and accepts. Our values. That is what we will do in Australia. We're not going to go and cut paste measures from other places, which have completely different societies.

"I mean, in China they were welding people's doors shut. That might be okay with them, but what I'm saying... And the UK is a different society to Australia, I would also stress." ®

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