The European Commission on Monday urged Europe’s telecoms giants including Deutsche Telekom and Orange to share reams of people’s mobile data from across the region to help predict the spread of the coronavirus.
In a conference call with telecoms executives, Thierry Breton, Europe’s internal market commissioner, called on the companies to hand over anonymized and aggregated data from people’s mobile phones to track how the virus was spreading, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The draft plans would allow the Commission — and not the carriers — to manage how the data was used, and give EU officials control over so-called metadata on hundreds of millions of people’s mobile phones. That represents a significant step for Brussels as it would make the EU executive liable for any hefty fines if the digital information was hacked or misused.
Speaking to POLITICO, Breton confirmed the request to carriers, adding that the Commission needed such aggregated metadata to track the spread of the virus and determine where people’s need for medical supplies was the most pressing.
“We will select one big operator by country,” Breton said. “We want to be very fast and follow this on a daily basis.”
The Commission insisted the operation would respect the bloc’s privacy rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, and e-privacy legislation. The European Data Protection Supervisor would also be involved, the EU executive added.
When Breton first hinted at the project last week, a Commission official said the data would not be used to track whether people are complying with national containment measures. Governments in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and many other capitals have gone into lockdown in past days to fight the global pandemic, urging citizens to stay at home.
It is not clear when Brussels would be able to create such a database of anonymized mobile phone information when countries are scrambling to combat the coronavirus which has now infected more than 370,000 people worldwide, leaving more than 16,000 dead.
Telco sector efforts
In recent weeks, mobile operators have started to share anonymized data with EU governments in response to the spread of COVID-19. Carriers involved in the discussions with the Commission said Breton’s request would likely include providing the same type of data, and would have to respect the region’s tough privacy rules.
Breton’s discussions were with chief executives of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Vodafone and GSMA, the industry trade body.
Mats Granryd, head of GSMA, said his association “and its members are doing everything they can to help the global fight against COVID-19.” He added that his members would work with the Commission, national authorities and international groups to use data to fight the crisis, but added any agreement would comply with European privacy standards.
Still, two industry executives expressed doubts over how Brussels would ensure the data remained anonymized and securely protected.
Since taking over at the Commission, Breton, the French official and former chief executive at the country’s former telecoms monopoly, has been vocal about the need for Europe to create its own region-wide pool of data to compete with the United States and China.
One executive, who spoke with POLITICO, cautioned that Brussels’ new plan could be part of the Commission’s broader strategy on data, and questioned which operators would be willing to sign up.
“Brussels doesn’t want to waste this crisis,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Tracking people’s movements
By aiming to pool large amounts of European mobile data, the Commission is following in the footsteps of national agencies, many of which are already working with carriers to track the spread of the virus through such anonymized digital information.
In Norway, local researchers saw a 60 percent decline in people traveling between cities after a countrywide lockdown was introduced — figures that were taken from people’s mobile phone data provided by Telenor, the national carrier.
Yet as the crisis has continued, countries such as Spain and Poland have gone a step further by creating smartphone apps, which offer an even greater ability to track and monitor people’s movements compared to anonymized mobile data. In the U.K., an app is in the works but has not yet launched.
Despite the Commission’s demands for mobile data, its efforts to combat COVID-19 may be short-lived.
Researchers, academics and telecoms executives say that as the coronavirus crisis has spread so quickly, the usefulness of such anonymized mobile phone metadata is quickly coming to an end. As people enter lockdown, often not able to travel beyond their neighborhoods, such digital information does not offer much insight because it is not granular enough to track people’s localized movements.
“It’s definitely not a silver bullet,” said Linus Bengtsson, co-founder of Flowminder, a nonprofit organization that has developed its open-source tools to analyze people’s mobile data.
Mobile data to track diseases “has always been a very sexy topic,” he said. “But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.”
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