How Smart Phones Are Helping Track Coronavirus But At Cost

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  • Governments around the world are opting for location tracking apps.
  • Apps are not just tracking location but also collecting other personal information such as identity, associations, location, and behavior.
  • Collection of private data threatens the privacy and human right of individual.
  • Tech giants, Apple and Google are stepping up to solve unattended privacy concerns
  • Governments can eliminate concerns to some extend by limiting access and decentralizing data.

In the age of technology, smartphones are becoming more and more inseparable to humans especially during lockdowns. In the time of COVID-19, it has been the sole companions for many due to the measures such as countrywide lockdown, ban on foreign travels, and so many others in place. Governments are desperately looking for measures to contain global crises and get economies running.

In the Fitch Rating’s special report, Global Economic Outlook – Coronavirus Crisis Update 2 April 2020, they have forecasted that the world economic activity will decline by 1.9% in 2020. The GDP of the U.S. will fall down by 3.3%, the U.K. down by 3.9%, and the eurozone down by 4.2%. China’s recovery from the disruption in 1Q20 will be curtailed by the global recession and its annual growth will be below 2%. Even though now, some parts are moving, the lockdowns could reduce GDP across the EU and the U.S. by 7% to 8%, or 28% to 30% annualized, in 2Q20.

To bring economies back on track, governments, tech companies, and international agencies are fighting back with their strongest weapon, technology. Almost all of the countries have announced data-driven technologies measures or are working on them. These solutions are being used as a critical tool for contact tracing, tracking the virus, quarantine enforcement, allocating medical resources, and others.

These measures have not only proved successful but helped in subsidizing the effects of the virus. However, some measures are extraordinary powers and should only be used temporarily during emergencies. While these data-driven measures are helping enormously, it has also become essential to understand a major issue: privacy.

There are severe measures and restrictions imposed by the government due to the ongoing crises. Such measures and restrictions are costing people their privacy as well as violating their human due to data exploitation, unprecedented levels of surveillance, and misinformation are being tested across the world.

So let’s first understand, “How does mobile location tracking work?”

Smartphones have become day-to-day companions for many people. To be specific, the number of smartphone users worldwide have already surpassed three billion and is forecast to further grow by several hundred million in the near future, says a report by Statista.

According to Pew Research, 96% of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind. GSMA says, there are exactly 5.13 billion people is using mobile devices while 2.71 billion or 35.13% own a smartphone. That is 66.5% of the world’s population. All these smartphones provide data for the mobile location which is generated by combining information from several sources including GPS, cellphone towers, and Bluetooth. Let’s understand how these sources work:

  • Cell site location information

All smartphones and cell phones use cell towers to connect their users to internet networks and telecommunications. Location information of a mobile phone is generated by tracking its movement with its user. During this process, the phone pings nearby cell towers also called cell sites. The information about which cell towers the phone has sent a signal is then stored by the telecommunication operators.

These operators collect proximity information from multiple cell towers. Then with the help of a technique called triangulation, authorities can estimate the location of a cell phone with great precision. Governments can compel Telco’s to provide such information to track someone’s movement in the past and in real-time.

For example, Israeli is one of the countries that were successful in fighting the virus. Their PM Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into a vast and undisclosed trove of cellphone data. This data was then used to retrace the movements of people that have contracted the coronavirus. It also helped identify others who need to be quarantined.

  • Global positioning system (GPS)

It is a radio navigation system that uses radio waves between satellites and a receiver inside a cellphone. It provides location and time information to different software such as maps, social media, shopping, and other utility apps. GPS in a mobile phone allows it to track its location within 5 to 10 feet.

Apps can log into smartphone’s location data which can then be obtained by governments. GPS data can then be used to track patterns of movement of populations in the past and in real-time.

For example, in Russia, the communications ministry received orders from PM to design a system to track people who contacted coronavirus patients. This system will use location data from individuals’ mobile phones. The ministry collected lists from regional authorities to provide of people infected with coronavirus as well as those quarantined at home.

  • Bluetooth 

Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard that is used for exchanging data over short distances between fixed and mobile devices. They primarily connect devices directly to each other using short-wavelength UHF radio waves. However, it can only communicate with nearby devices.

Using a specialized app, individuals can be traced through Bluetooth signals by identifying their phone’s proximity to other devices with accuracy. Bluetooth tracks interactions unlike cell tower or GPS data which only tracks actual location. Hence, it is one of the best-understood interactions tracking tool.

For example, in Singapore, the government on March 20 launched a Bluetooth-based contact tracing open source app, TraceTogether. This app aims to supplement its human contact tracing efforts. It helps health ministry to accurately trace the movements and interactions of normal people to minimize the risk of spread. However, once a TraceTogether user gets detected as a positive case the health ministry decrypt its cryptographically encrypted temporary IDs. It helps them access the user’s app to obtain a list of phone numbers from the uploaded data log.

How is mobile location data being used to respond to Covid-19?

Mobile location data are also known as geolocation provides proximity information from mobile phones and other devices. It can be one of the most crucial elements for governments as it provides reliability for individualized tracking of the movement of infected people. It also helps to identify individuals who might have contacted coronavirus patients during the period when they were contagious.

Individualized tracking has proven to be useful to ascertain if people are complying with social distancing, quarantine, and other measures. The aggregated location data analysis provides significant insight into the potential transmission and potential hot-spots of transmission. Examples of how governments are using technology to respond to Covid-19 include:

  • Contact tracing

This process helps identify individuals who might have contacted an infected person or crossed paths with them. According to United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this process can help interrupt transmission by rapidly identifying individuals who might have come in proximity of an infected person or have been within 6 feet with them for approximately 10 or more minutes.

Contact tracing can encourage such individuals to immediately isolate themselves or seek testing and treatment. Mobile location data has become a helpful method as the coronavirus is transmitted person-to-person via respiratory droplets which help identify potentially exposed individuals.

For example, Australia has launched an app to trace people that have come in contact with confirmed patients. The COVIDSafe app allows health officials to access personal information of a person’s previous interactions if they contract the virus. The apps utilize Bluetooth wireless signals which allow it to collect information for all the smartphones within the range of 1.5-meter of the infected person for 15 or more minutes.

  • Enforcing quarantine and social distancing measures

To stop the virus from spreading governments are imposing quarantine, lockdown, and other restrictions on movement, including closures of public spaces, isolation of infected individuals, and requests for voluntary social distancing. However, with an increasing number of people under such restrictions, there is another challenge to monitor their compliance. Hence, governments are using mobile location data. Some governments are encouraging people to install apps that identify violations of these restrictions by tracking user’s location data.

For example, Taiwan is using an “electronic fence” that helps authorities monitor and track smartphones of people that are supposed to be quarantined and are leaving the house. The app will alert the cyber-security department and authorities will be able to respond to any trigger within 15 min. Their goal is to stop people from spreading the infection to others.

  • Big data analytics 

Location data from smartphones is also being used by several governments and companies to examine people’s movements and behaviors. In addition, to understand the changes in behavior over time to help them forecast different ways the virus might be spreading. It will also help them analyze the effectiveness of public health interventions such as social distancing measures. 

For example, Chinese government is working with the country’s two tech giants, Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings. The tech giants created color-based systems that enabled them to record an individual’s health and identify coronavirus carriers. Health apps have become one of the crucial elements in China’s part to prevent a second wave of infection.

It allow users to scan QR codes to share information about their health status before boarding public transport or entering public places, even their own housing complexes. These apps can also track whether the users have previously been in contact with an infected person.

  • Hot spot mapping 

Hot spot mapping is another type of big data analysis that combines location data and location history to piece together the movement of infected individuals. This data can further help authorities send out public health warnings about previous locations the patient visited.


South Korea was one of the first countries to experience a coronavirus outbreak and used massive testing and technology. It’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) is running a COVID-19 Smart Management System (SMS), a contact tracing system which was developed for MERS. It helps the authorities by analyzing the movement of affected patients and those in quarantine by tracking smartphone data of patients.

They have also created create a map for the public, allowing citizens to check whether they have crossed paths with one of the patients. The tracking data going into the map includes smartphone data, face to face interactions, previously visited locations, credit card information, and others. Other than maps, the South Korean government is also sending text messages to warn citizens if they might have come in contact with any patient.

Privacy Issues

Privacy risks of mobile location tracking are significant as it contains sensitive and revealing insights about a person’s identity, associations, location, behavior, and others. In the past few years, there have been several laws in place to limit or ban the user’s private information.

However, location tracking and surveillance are not only a violation of those terms but giving excess to the private data of millions to data companies. For instance, laws in the U.S. and Europe are quite specific with regards to the user’s consent before using their data. The companies must also disclose information about how the data will be used, shared, and stored.

A year ago, America’s own representative democratic citizens would have objected the government attempted to mandate surveillance. They would not have revealed the location of every person 24 hours a day and seven days a week of surveillance such as China’s authoritarian regime.

After the Apple Store was created, Americans consented to only a few app systems run by private companies. Nevertheless, a decade later, tens of millions of Americans are finding themselves with spies in their pockets.

Also Read: AI is Helping Fight Coronavirus with New Range of Technologies

Today, by using health apps, governments are legally allowing companies to collect information and sell it. The only factor saving us from not getting pawned is company’s internal policies and the decency of individual employees. In such case, the government would be far more accountable than corporations that controlling their data.

This data can be used to create real-time targeting opportunities for governments to forcefully enforce measures such as quarantine, social distancing, and others. Such mobile phone tracking programs raise concerns about how the governments are collecting, using, and retaining data and where do we need to put limit on data collection for such measures.

Almost all the apps being developed by governments to track and monitor people for various measures are using location data. This means placing large collections of data in the hands of governments to respond to Covid-19. This might lead to excessive interference with location privacy giving way to undue restrictions on other rights. They are basically a trade-off with privacy that most of the governments are willing to manifest the benefits.

Finally, revealing personal details about movements and behaviors publically can stoke fear and panic. For instance, in South Korea, the government is sending people text messages to notify the public about infected people. However, The Guardian recently reported that the owners of shops and restaurants where the infected people visited compliant that these alerts are chasing customers away. This is not only driving people away but might also put them out of business even after disinfecting their premises.

How Tech Gaints are Helping Secure Data?

Digital contact tracing and other tracking methods are already running in several countries. They have enormously helped governments; however, there are unattended privacy concerns. So much so, that the world’s two tech giants, Apple and Google are teaming up to create a new system based on location data tracing. This system would alert smartphone users if they’ve come into contact with an infected person.

The system created through a joint initiative would rely on the Bluetooth signals of smartphones. It works once, a positive person notifies public health authorities through the app. Then the public health apps would alert other smartphones user is had come near the infected person in the prior 14 days. The technology will be used on both Apple iPhones and Google Android phones.

On 21 May 2020, 23 countries across five continents have sought accesses to the initial version of their contact tracing technology. They have recently announced that will be imposing certain restriction on authorities or governments looking to use their app. One of the companies’ rules is that the authorities will need to stop the use of phone numbers from users.

The two smartphone companies prioritizing user privacy and leave them undercut with the technology’s usefulness. This will mean that contact-tracing app developed without adhering to Apple and Google’s guidelines would face severe technical and practical limitations.

Can tracking and privacy go hand in hand? 

It is undeniable there is more than one difficult issue that countries are facing. So, to avoid violation of human rights and safeguard privacy, governments can implement a few key principles to guide decision-making.

  • The top priority for safeguarding privacy is designing tracking systems in such a way that they are decentralized and only shares they are key health data. They should make sure it does not gather or reveal the movements, contacts, or other personal details of the affected.
  • Governments should limit access to the data and to whom it can be disseminated. Most importantly, the data should not be retained once it is not needed. There should be proper government-mandate which regulates the data to be only used to serve a specified health need.
  • Any claims by governments for requiring a new authority should be examined carefully. In case they already adopted a new authority it should be explicitly time-limited. In case they extend the time limit they need to have clear and constrained criteria.

World after Coronavirus 

Once this pandemic ends, there should be a proper review of the technologies used by different governments under the emergency. There should be also monitoring to a certain extent how other countries will review the technologies used. Monitoring such technologies one the crises is over is crucial as it will give legitimacy to a terrifying new surveillance system.


Despite the points, there is still a certain degree of invasion from the government due to the necessity of emergency measures. So such measures must not outlive the health crisis. The aim of such apps is not just to force people to follow the government’s instructions. Instead, it aims to create trust and communicate transparently.

In order to avoid privacy and human rights to suffer both online and offline in the long run, we need to ask: How can we priorities both without sacrificing?


Author Bio: 

Shreeya Chourasia, Writing is food to my soul and the quote that inspires me to keep learning is “Learning never exhausts the mind” by Leonardo da Vinci. Tech Research Online has given me a platform to do just that, I learn and I write and then I learn a little more.


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