Life Tech Privacy fears as governments use phone data to track coronavirus rule-breakers
Updated:

Privacy fears as governments use phone data to track coronavirus rule-breakers

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 18: Three women wearing face masks use their mobile phones during a work break in Neutral Bay on March 18, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced non-essential gatherings of 100 or more people indoors are banned and has declared a human biosecurity emergency. There are now 454 confirmed cases of COVID-19 In Australia - 210 in New South Wales, 94 in Victoria, 78 in Queensland, 32 in South Australia, 31 in Western Australia, seven in Tasmania, three in the Australian Capital Territory and one in the Northern Territory. There have been six confirmed deaths, five in NSW and one in Western Australia. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
Vodafone has provided the federal and NSW governments with "aggregated" and "anonymised" user location data. Photo: Getty
Share
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

Australian governments have been provided with Vodafone customers’ phone location data to assist with the coronavirus pandemic response, it has been revealed.

Both the federal and New South Wales governments have been given access to “aggregated” and “anonymised” location data of millions of Vodafone Australia customers for the purpose of monitoring adherance to social distancing and stay-at-home measures, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Sunday

This is despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison last Sunday telling reporters that “the Australian government isn’t doing that” when asked if smartphone location data would be used to fight COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told The New Daily that the phone data was “offered”, and not requested by the government.

“A telecommunications provider in Australia offered PM&C aggregated, anonymised data showing how busy cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are currently compared with this time last year,” the spokesperson said.

“This data can provide a picture of the effectiveness of measures taken to address the COVID-19 crisis generally.

“No personal information has been provided to PM&C by any telecommunications company nor was it requested.”

However, Vodafone Australia said the data was requested.

The telco “provided, on request, aggregated network information to the NSW Department of Customer Service and the federal Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet”, Vodafone external affairs director Dan Lloyd said.

“No personal information has been provided, and no personal information could be derived from it,” Mr Lloyd said.

“This information simply shows the total number of subscribers in various areas at points in time.

“This information can help show trends in population movements immediately before and after the lockdown measures, with the aim of assisting in the reduction of the spread of COVID-19.”

The data is not “real time”, and instead shows “historic points in time”, for example, “the total number of users in large geographical areas at different points in time such as March 2020 vs March 2019”, a Vodafone spokesperson told The New Daily.

Graohs showing the change in weekday CBD populations in Melbourne and Brisbane for March 2019 vs 2018.
Location data shows the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on CBDs. Image: Vodafone

The data does not identify individuals, and is instead “being used to help understand population movement trends”, the spokesperson said.

We hope it assists decision-making and saving lives.”

NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller was asked at a Sunday afternoon press conference if he was “aware of the ability to use phone tracking to keep watch of people”.

We’re really sort of testing the public support from a policing perspective,’’ Mr Fuller said.
Phone tracking is “a great strategy for when this is over”, Mick Fuller said. Photo: ABC

“I’m not asking for any more measures around tracking people, to be honest with you.

“I know Singapore and other countries have used it well.”

However, he said there was a “really good position” for phone tracking to be used in the future.

It would be “a great strategy for when this is over and [we] open our borders to international travellers”, Mr Fuller said.

But I think at the moment we’re in a challenging space around isolation and police powers and the community coming on the journey.

“We don’t want to lose them either. Community policing is so important to us.”

Are Telstra, Optus, TPG, and iPrimus/Dodo sharing data?

The New Daily asked the nation’s other major telcos if they had, like Vodafone, provided customers’ location data to the federal or state governments.

Neither TPG nor Vocus, which owns iPrimus and Dodo, responded to the request for comment by deadline.

The nation’s two biggest telcos, Telstra and Optus, declined to reveal if they had received requests for, or provided, user data.

But a Telstra spokesperson told The New Daily the firm works “closely with intelligence agencies and law enforcement to support national security and safety efforts under the relevant legislation”.

Any data requests from law enforcement or government are confidential, so we’re unable to disclose if we’ve had any requests,’’ they said.

Protecting customers’ safety and privacy “is always our highest priority”, the spokesperson said.

“There’s a careful balance to be maintained between ensuring law enforcement and the government has the information they need to protect the country and for people to be confident their data and privacy is being handled with respect and due consideration.”

An Optus spokesperson said “as a provider of essential services, our No.1 priority is to keep Australians connected and safe”.

“This includes working with our Commonwealth and state governments to assist their efforts in navigating our country through these challenging times,” the spokesperson said.

“We do not publicly share the requests we receive.”

Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow in emerging technologies at Monash University, said more transparency and accountability was needed.

Telcos “should be transparent about when government is requesting data from them” whether it’s “location data or other kinds of personal data”, Dr Sadowski said.

There needs to be transparency about these partnerships, about how this data will be used,” he said.

“There needs to be that transparency so that there’s accountability.”

Government ‘must come clean’: Digital Rights Watch

On Sunday, online privacy advocates Digital Rights Watch said the government “must come clean on phone surveillance”, and be transparent about the “nature and extent of its data aggregation from mobile service providers”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously denied the use of phone location data. Photo: Getty

“It’s deeply troubling that just a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison outright denied any such activity, we learn that the federal and NSW governments have received location data from a major telecommunications provider in Australia,” DRW chair Lizzie O’Shea said.

“It is unrealistic for the government to expect people to accept and comply with the measures they’ve put in place if they’re keeping activities such as this secret, or denying they’re happening when directly asked.”

Ms O’Shea said there is “an ugly history of secrecy and a lack of accountability when it comes to surveillance of people in Australia by our governments, and this latest fabrication only serves to further erode trust in government at a critical time”.

Dr Sadowski said that rather than adopting a “maximalist ‘collect first, ask questions later’ approach”, governments must explain to the public what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

We’re not talking about national security or public safety, we’re talking about public health,” he said.

“The enemy, the coronavirus, doesn’t care what cell location data the government is collecting. It’s not going to change its tactic.”

Surveillance technologies implemented in response to COVID-19 will likely continue to be used by governments and law enforcement after the pandemic, Dr Sadowski warned.

“We call it mission creep,” he said.

“We should expect that that’s what’s going to happen because there are plenty of precedents for that exact kind of misuse.”