COVID-19 stokes fear of the surveillance society
Reluctant to heed government advice about “social distancing,” Brits and other UK residents were last night hit by tough new rules on freedom of movement. People cannot leave their homes unless they need to buy groceries, exercise or – for those designated “key workers” – travel to work. Designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the regime is the most draconian the UK has ever known. Telecom operators could feasibly play a vital role in enforcing it.
BT, the UK’s former state-owned telecom incumbent, last week offered to share location data with government authorities battling the deadly virus, according to newspaper reports. In theory, its technology could highlight areas where people have gathered in violation of the rules. If constraints on providing data in real time can be overcome, police could be dispatched to break up crowds.
The UK is not the only country where network technology could help to enforce restrictions on movement. In the US, the Trump administration is said to be in similar discussions with technology firms about access to location data. Vodafone appears to have already delivered “heat map” data to authorities in the COVID-19-stricken region of Lombardy. Telekom Austria is working with a startup called Invenium whose algorithms can be used to illustrate people movements between locations.
In the latest example, from Asia, South Korea’s SK Telecom is gifting what it calls a “floating population analysis service” to the police until the government declares an end to the COVID-19 crisis. Branded Geovision, the technology analyzes communications data between mobile phones and basestations in real time to provide accurate location-based services. According to SKT, it is capable of analyzing any part of the country every five minutes. “Upon detecting (unusually) crowded places in real time, the police agencies can dispatch officers to the scene to implement proper measures to reduce people’s risk of catching the virus,” says the operator in its release.
Any suggestion these moves trample civil liberties and presage the dawn of a police state sound shrill and self-defeating in the current turmoil. Offered medicine, a man on his sickbed worries little about contamination. But libertarians are uneasy. Their concern is that collusion between technology companies and governments will continue when the crisis ends. In countries where people are already subject to heavy surveillance, state monitoring of individuals could become easy and routine.
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