Smartphone data could be used to pinpoint risky coronavirus hot spots in Australia, with the Australian government considering new tech schemes.
Smartphone data could be used to pinpoint risky coronavirus hot spots in Australia, with the Australian government considering new tech schemes.

How phones could be used to track Aussie virus hotpots

The Australian Government is considering using smartphone data to track public movements during the coronavirus pandemic, with the Department of Home Affairs telling News Corp it would "explore all options" to reduce the spread of the virus.

Anonymised information from smartphones is currently being used to identify crowd hot spots in countries including the US and UK, and to determine whether social distancing rules are being followed. 

And Australian political experts said the move could be accepted by the public if created with strict guidelines and a limited time frame, as "extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures".

Twenty-two countries are now using smartphone data to track the movements of citizens during the coronavirus outbreak, according to new research from Top10VPN, with the technology most popular in European and Asian nations.

The UK government last week received legal clearance from its privacy watchdog to use smartphone location information to create maps of citizens' movements and identify problem areas within 12 to 24 hours.

Information from smartphones is being used to detect coronavirus hot spots.
Information from smartphones is being used to detect coronavirus hot spots.

 

Officials in the United States are also using phone location data that has been stripped of identifying information to track the public's movements. It's believed the data is coming from the mobile advertising industry rather than telecommunication firms.

Australia's three major telcos told News Corp they had not received official requests for phone location data yet, but a Home Affairs spokesperson said the Government had not ruled out using a similar scheme to identify high-risk zones.

"The Australian Government is working closely with the states and territories and continues to explore all options to support the COVID-19 response," the spokesperson said.

"State and territories are currently responsible for managing self-isolation compliance within their jurisdiction."

Former Howard Government adviser Terry Barnes said he expected the use of anonymised smartphone data in Australia would "be acceptable to the public" if it was used to save lives during this pandemic.

"These are extraordinary times and extraordinary measures need to be taken," he said.

"Most of us have been pretty accepting of the restrictions on our liberty. Most of us are doing the right thing and doing what we're told because we're trying to protect the rest of the community. I think mobile tracking would be accepted unless it was to be ongoing."

Mr Barnes said the Government would need to set strict guidelines for any mobile phone-tracking scheme in Australia, and would need to clearly communicate what data was used and what it could do.

The scheme would also require a "sunset clause," he said, to ensure smartphone data was only used to control the COVID-19 outbreak and not beyond it.

"They could say it was for six months at maximum," Mr Barnes said.

A phone-tracking scheme could be used to identify hot spots where people were gathering in large numbers and ignoring social distancing rules.

Officials have already been forced to close Sydney's Bondi Beach after large crowds gathered despite the new rules, and Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate threatened to take similar action in Queensland yesterday if visitors continued to ignore the rules.

Originally published as How phones could be used to track Aussie virus hotpots


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