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Correct use of telco data can help in this crisis

01 Apr 2020
Joakim Reiter

Joakim Reiter

External Affairs Director, Vodafone Group

During the worst health crisis in a century, Europeans are relying on telecom technology like never before to maintain our daily lives.

Telecom networks are meeting the challenge of increased demand and proving their value to European societies by ensuring that we stay socially connected and can access work, health and education services from home.

In addition, the data from our networks can provide governments and health authorities with valuable insights to assess how well containment is working, thereby reducing the spread of the virus.

“Data from our networks can provide governments and health authorities with valuable insights to assess how well containment is working, thereby reducing the spread of the virus.”

In Italy, for example, we have used our Vodafone Analytics platform to provide Lombardy’s regional government with heat maps showing how population movements have changed before and after containment. We are providing similar insights in Spain and are working hard to do the same for authorities in Greece, Portugal and the UK in the short term, as well as to roll out this capability quickly to other countries in line with the European Commission’s desire to have visibility across the continent.

These data snapshots draw population insights from the statistically significant aggregated and anonymised sample data we have available. The raw data itself is not provided to authorities – nor have they requested it - and we only count groups, further protecting the privacy of individuals.

Separately, Vodafone is also helping authorities to better predict the impact of public policy decisions on the future spread of the virus, thereby hopefully minimising the time that the measures have to be in place. Leveraging our experience of tracking the spread of infectious diseases like Malaria in Africa using big data and artificial intelligence techniques, Vodafone and the University of Southampton have created a dashboard enabling governments to model how COVID-19 might propagate in different scenarios.

"Vodafone is also helping authorities to better predict the impact of public policy decisions on the future spread of the infection, thereby hopefully minimising the time that the measures have to be in place."

We have shared our visualisation tool with the European Union (EU) and national governments in Spain and Italy to model when they might re-open public and private facilities, and the impact that might have on critical infrastructure like hospital beds and health facilities.

We are convinced that such levers, when utilised in a reasonable and legitimate manner, are key to protect and empower citizens and to help governments determine how quickly societies can safely start to return to normal.

In giving authorities tools to tackle Europe’s twin health and economic crises - sharing insights based on aggregated and anonymised data and not the raw customer information - we also do not lose European fundamental values.

“In giving authorities tools to tackle Europe’s twin health and economic crises we also do not lose European fundamental values."

Of course, any sharing of personal data can - and should - raise very legitimate concerns around the fundamental rights and privacy of citizens.

For this reason, to protect customers’ privacy, our firm commitment is to share only anonymous and highly aggregated population insights. In neither of these concrete examples of our work, including with the Commission, is Vodafone providing authorities with actual customer data nor identifiers, something which we do not believe is compatible with European law, many national laws, or the fundamental rights enshrined in the EU Treaties. It is therefore not possible to use this data to track individual citizens. We also continue maintaining the highest standards of data security. 

In contrast, European privacy and data protection values are being tested by the availability of individual tracking technology such as private mobile apps that automatically alert users if they have been near someone who has tested positive for this awful virus. Such tools are fraught with very complicated and sensitive issues. Vodafone will never voluntarily offer our customer data for any initiatives that remove the requirement to give consent.

Some governments may want to utilise such location tracking technology in the near future so that they need to rely less on collective measures. In that eventuality, it is our view that four conditions should be upheld: mobile apps must be independent of operators and other private companies; be developed and controlled by national health authorities; still require consent; and it must be for the state institutions to justify why this is necessary and in line with existing laws and regulations.

It is not for companies to judge what measures will be needed to get Europe through the coming months in the best shape possible. Vodafone stands ready though to use the tools at our disposal to help governments – and the public at large – manage through this period, while remaining as transparent as legally possible about our activities. 

Even in the hardest of times, we must be clear about what rules – such as the fundamental right to privacy – should not be deviated from. The European values we uphold now will continue to define us, and our way of life, in the future.

This article originally appeared as sponsored content in Politico on 27 March 2020.

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