Cell phone data against Covid-19 pandemia?

by Peter Schaar (6. 3. 2020)

These days we are witnessing how carelessly fundamental and human rights are being treated in the face of supposedly existential threats. While Greece reacts to the increase in the number of refugees on the European external borders provoked by Turkey by “suspending” the human right to asylum, in Germany, in view of the increasing number of people infected with the Covid19 virus, there are serious calls to use location data from mobile phone use to trace chains of infection and to identify contact persons.

A working group of the German Robert Koch Institute reports that this is possible. It is true that in the meantime not only smartphones, but also all kinds of other everyday objects generate a wealth of metadata, including location data. However, the location data from the mobile phone cells collected by the operators is quite inaccurate – between a few hundred meters and several kilometers depending on the network and region. The idea that these data could contribute to the effective containment of corona infections is therefore not very plausible.

It is true that a mobile phone company could achieve a more precise location (10-100 meters) by triangulating the signal delays from mobile devices to different mobile phone base stations. However, such triangulation is only carried out in real time in special individual cases. Permanent storage of the results would not be permitted.

The situation is different with GPS data: Although they allow the device to be located to the nearest meter. However, mobile network operators do not have access to this data and are not allowed to store it. Whether and for how long the app providers and platform operators (Google, Facebook, Apple …) store the GPS data differs greatly. In many cases, corresponding data is likely to be available if the user has activated the tracking function on his smartphone.

In general, government access to location data may only be granted if a legal basis permits this. Neither the Federal Infection Protection Act nor any other law provides public authorities with corresponding powers. In view of the missing data alone, it would make little sense to demand that the telecommunications companies hand over the data.

Of course, anyone infected with the coronavirus is at liberty to transmit the location data stored on their smartphone to the authorities responsible for narrowing down the infection. Whether such a state data collection makes sense, however, is doubtful. A compulsory collection of data from all smartphone users, as is apparently practised in China, would not be compatible with our constitutional order.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

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