The government is working with mobile network O2 to analyse anonymous smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines, Sky News has learned.
The partnership began following a tech summit at Number 10, where officials discussed coronavirus outbreak planning with representatives from the UK’s largest phone networks.
A spokesperson for O2 confirmed that the company was providing aggregated data to the government so it could observe trends in public movements, particularly in London.
The project will not be able to track individuals and is not designed to do so.
The city is considered to be ahead of the rest of the country in terms of the spread of COVID-19. London has been the location for 953 of the UK’s 2,626 confirmed cases and at least 42 of its 137 deaths.
Ministers and officials believe they can use anonymous mobile phone location data to analyse how Londoners have reacted to its guidance on social distancing and the new transport restrictions.
This could help the government understand if its instructions on reduced travel are being followed, and potentially if additional services or enforcement are necessary.
Lessons from the impact of transport restrictions on London, where the outbreak is considered to be significantly advanced, could then be applied nationally.
Network operators are able to determine the location of individual phones to varying levels of accuracy, and most have tools which would show mobile devices as single dots on a map.
This is not the level of access the government is seeking.
In order to comply with data protection law, which considers combining multiple datasets a “high risk” activity, the government has only asked O2 for its location data, rather than asking all the UK mobile networks.
Yet civil society groups warned that although the data sharing agreement appeared lawful, it could undermine public confidence in the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak if it took place in secret.
Jim Killock, the director of Open Rights Group, told Sky News: “The government needs to maintain public trust, which means they must declare what they are doing, under which laws.
“Transparency is absolutely key to ensuring everyone trusts what the government is doing. As things stand, secretive discussions with private companies, combined with comments about sacrificing liberties, risks breeding mistrust.
“Everyone needs the government to succeed in their fight against the virus; all the public needs is transparency,” Mr Killock added.
The government did not respond to repeated requests for comment by Sky News.
A spokesperson for O2 explained: “We are fully engaged in helping in the fight against COVID-19. Besides zero rating access (giving free access without data charges) to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK.
‘Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.”