How networks will use cellphone location data to stop the spread of the coronavirus

Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams announced yesterday that network operators will provide location data to help the government track the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“The industry collectively has agreed to provide data analytics services in order to help government,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

This was to help inform the Department of Health with estimates of how many people are infected in a particular area, and “to look at the individuals that are affected”, Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

Aggregate data only

Vodacom has told MyBroadband that its understanding of the Minister’s data information request is for high-level aggregated data on how people are moving to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“This does not include personal information or information that identifies a specific individual,” stated Vodacom.

“The aggregate information is to be able to see how the population is moving as a whole and does not include any personalised records or even individual records.”

This data would show how many people moved from one area to another over a relatively long period. An area is also quite a big geographical region – at best the footprint of a base station.

While Vodacom has said the data will not be used to track people on an individual level, it explained the aggregate data can be very helpful to see how people are moving, especially during the lockdown.

It can also be used to understand the potential movement of the outbreak itself.

The term “Track and Trace” has become popular – and the government is also using it to describe this initiative – but it does not involve the tracking or tracing of any individuals.

Current data protection laws still apply

With respect to the personal data of individual customers, Vodacom said the existing laws remain in effect.

“Current laws in South Africa serve to protect customer information and do not allow us to share any customer information without a court order or without the consent of the customer,” Vodacom said.

“In the event that Vodacom is served with a Section 205 Subpoena from the court, Vodacom will then be obliged to act accordingly and will abide by applicable South African laws.”

The Minister’s statement regarding using cellular networks to track SARS-CoV-2 is transcribed below:

It’s important to look also at the individuals that are affected. In order to be able to help the Department of Health to say that we know that in a particular area we have so many people that are infected. And that can only be enabled when we work together with the Department of Health and the operators that have capability to do so. The industry collectively has agreed to provide data analytics services in order to help government achieve this that we are talking about.

Now read: Coronavirus cases in South Africa – Where they travelled to and where they currently live

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How networks will use cellphone location data to stop the spread of the coronavirus