National security council used phone data to help inform decisions
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National security council used phone data to help inform decisions

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This weekend brings an end to the full-scale lockdown introduced in mid-March to help combat the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19).

And with it comes a new regime, with more relaxed conditions such as home visits and outdoors sport. The new measures, announced last week by the national security council, were made possible, at leat in part, by the analysis of our movements during the lockdown, using data we transmitted with our mobile phones without even being aware.

On Thursday this past week, the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee met to discuss the use of personal data to combat Covid-19, and the implications for data protection.

MEPs are concerned that so-called tracing apps, developed to map a person’s movements and contacts with other people, may provide an unintended opportunity for the unscrupulous to invade a person’s privacy without their knowledge or consent.

But the Data Against Corona Taskforce (DACT), which provides the Belgian government with information to allow it to gauge whether people’s movements are in line with the restrictions, is all legal and above board.

The DACT project was set up by federal health minister Maggie De Block (Open VLD) and minister for privacy Philippe De Backer (also Open VLD), with the participation of the major telecommunications companies and with the approval of the privacy commission – the country’s data protection agency.

The task force includes participants from Proximus, Telenet (Base) and Orange, as well as experts who have worked on previous pandemics.

The information gathered, we are assured, is not able to be used to identify any individual phone user, and in fact, while it was able back in April to tell us how often people were leaving their own commune of residence, individual phones are not identified geographically, although the information is collected.

The task force guarantees not to cross the line with regard to citizens’ privacy,” reads the statement on the page dealing with DACT on the Proximus website.

The data is well protected, stating that it is impossible to link back to individuals. A citizen’s identity is and will remain completely anonymous and secure. In accordance with GDPR, an extensive DPIA (Data Privacy Impact Analysis) has been compiled, under the guidance of the Data Protection Authority. They have issued a positive opinion which includes adhering to set conditions.”

As to the utility of the data being gathered, the effects are shown by the government’s decision to go ahead with Phase 1 of the relaxation of strict lockdown conditions.

According to Frédéric Pivetta, CEO of consultancy Dahlberg and member of DACT, “99% of municipalities respected the confinement. It was a success. There is always a small percentage who respect less, it’s true. But there are some very specific reasons that explaining the differences.”

Pivetta and his colleague on the task force, tech entrepreneur and CEO of app developers Rosa Sébastien Deletaille, are the only people allowed to know the origins of the data, before it is fully anonymised.

Meanwhile Belgium continues to lag behind other countries in the development of a contact tracing app, which would involve a more aggressive and intrusive collection of data from users – albeit with their consent. The European Parliament will debate the issue at its plenary session in Brussels on May 14.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times