UK considers using mobile data to track Covid-19 cases

20 Mar 2020

Image: © rcfotostock/

Mobile service provider O2 said it has the potential to ‘build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move’, without identifying individuals.

UK ministers are asking phone operators if they can use mobile data to help monitor whether the public are following social distancing advice to tackle the coronavirus.

BT, which owns EE, said it was in talks with the government over how it could aid in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. O2 said it had been asked to support those mapping and seeking to control the spread of the virus, but ruled out allowing individuals to be identified.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said the tide could be turned in the fight against the disease within 12 weeks, but only if the public heeded the social distancing advice.

Otherwise, he has not ruled out bringing in measures that some believe may impinge on civil liberties in order to save lives.

Creating movement maps

The government’s response to the outbreak could be shaped by the use of anonymised data and creating movement maps, the Guardian reported.

A BT spokesperson said: “We are talking with the government about a number of areas in which we may be able to assist with the national public health effort.

“In relation to the use of mobile data, we are still actively exploring possibilities. As always, we are mindful of the privacy of our customers, while making sure we do everything that might help the medical authorities in the fight against coronavirus.”

O2 stressed it would not share data that would be able to identify or map individuals, only very broad mass movements.

A spokesperson said: “Besides zero rating access to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK.

“‘Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.”

Downing Street declined to comment.

Data tracking in Israel

The news comes after the Israeli government passed emergency measures this week, which will enable Israeli security agencies to monitor and track the mobile phones of people suspected of being exposed to the virus.

The use of this technology, traditionally reserved for counter-terrorism purposes, will track movements in Israel for the next month. However, civil rights groups in the country described the move as a “dangerous precedent”.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it is “a slippery slope that must be approached and resolved after much debate and not after a brief discussion”.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rolled out the measures using emergency powers. He said: “Israel is a democracy and we must maintain the balance between civil rights and the public’s needs. These tools will very much assist us in locating the sick and stopping the virus from spreading.”

The technology may also be used to enforce quarantine orders in Israel.

– PA Media, with additional reporting by Kelly Earley