Privacy Commissioner John Edwards says the health authorities have the green light to track coronavirus-infected people's movements via data collected by their mobile phone companies.

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Israel is among the countries that have already used mobile data to trace Covid-19 victims. South Korea has as well, even placing maps of victims' movements online, including details of every location they visited, be it a supermarket or a massage parlor (the maps are anonymised, but the New York Times reports online "mobs" have been able to work out identities.

Hong Kong is asking those infected to wear tracking bracelets.

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In China, the government is requiring citizens to use software on their phones that automatically classifies each person with a colour code - red, yellow or green, indicating contagion risk, the Times reports. The colour-codes determined whether you are permitted in certain areas, such as subways.

Schools and non-essential services across New Zealand will be closed for the next four weeks after the Government put the country in lockdown to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.

On Friday, Singapore also introduced a smartphone app for citizens to help the authorities locate people who may have been exposed to the virus, the Times says. The app, called TraceTogether, uses Bluetooth signals to detect mobile phones that are nearby. If an app user later tests positive for the virus, the health authorities may examine the data logs from the app to find people who crossed their paths. People get warnings if a coronavirus victim has crossed their path, but not that person's identity.

Those who are unwell could be tracked. Photo / Getty Images
Those who are unwell could be tracked. Photo / Getty Images

In the US, the Washington Post has reported controversy and confusion over whether the law allows health officials to access mobile phone data - the better to establish a person's exact movements over the two weeks prior to them being diagnosed.

Edwards indicates the situation is more black-and-white here.

Asked if the Ministry of Health could approach a mobile phone company and ask it to handover the movement data of someone infected with Covid-19, the Privacy Commissioner said:

"That could be done under existing law – although the telcos might want some additional assurance that they would not be liable for providing that information.

"Under the Privacy Act and Telecommunications Information Privacy Code, telcos are able to disclose telecommunications information where they believe on reasonable grounds that it is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health.

"It is possible that they could also approach me for a special authority under the Privacy Act if they felt one was needed in the circumstances."

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Certainly, the capability is there. IT services company Datacom developed a system that allows Police to access location data from Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees customers' mobile phones.

Edwards is in the process of consulting on guidelines around the technology, including the proposal to track a person via their mobile phone without the person's permission if necessary there is a threat to their wellbeing or public safety.

Statistics New Zealand has also been using anonymised mobile phone movement data from Spark and Vodafone as part of a people-tracking project.

Could surveillance stay after virus is gone?

Council for Civil Liberties chair Thomas Beagle says his organisation is broadly supportive of government efforts to keep people safe, which he so far sees as proportional to the exceptional cricumstances.

But he qualifies that, "We want two things from government: 1) the commitment that the powers they are using are solely to deal with this crisis and will be willingly given up later, and 2) Proactive transparency about what they're doing and why. The government needs to be upfront about what it's doing and how it's doing it to maintain the trust of New Zealanders."

Here, Beagle seems on safe ground. Edwards has constantly stressed transparency, tightly defined use and time-limits on a broad variety of measures, including cellphone tracking and hospitality registers - though time will tell how much he has to nudge the government to do the right thing once the crisis eventually fades.

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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

The telecommunications industry has already been involved in the Covid-19 response, with Spark, Vodafone, Vocus (owner of Orcon and Slingshot) and 2degrees wiping data caps on all fixed-broadband plans.

Chorus, Spark and others are also working on plans to connect low-income families and keep online education going during the crisis.

Warning on hospo registers

Although the Level 2 measure proved short-lived, with bars, restaurants and cafes now shutting altogether as the nation transitions to Level 3 then 4, Edwards has also warned that phone numbers, email addresses and other personal information collected via hospitality registers can be used for Covid-19 containment purposes only, not marketing or any other use.

He also cautioned that the information collected from patrons could only be kept for four weeks.

Naming the infected

Earlier, Edwards told the Herald that an employer could tell other staff if one of their fellow employees had Covid-19 - if that person had been in contact with their co-workers.

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"The Privacy Act does allow for disclosure if there's a serious threat so staff can take precautions to protect themselves," Edwards says.

"One of the exceptions which permit the use or disclosure of personal information is where you believe that the use or disclosure is necessary in order to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone's safety, wellbeing or health.

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