Slovakia to track coronavirus victims through telecoms data

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Slovakia has passed a law allowing the state to use data from telecoms companies to track the movements of people suffering from coronavirus to ensure that they are abiding by quarantine rules.

The amendment, which was approved by parliament on Wednesday, will allow the country’s Public Health Office to have access to location data from mobile phones specifically for the purpose of containing the spread of the novel virus, which has so far infected 216 people in the 5.5m-strong central European nation.

Slovak officials said that the measures were inspired by similar legislation in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, where aggressive contact tracing has played a crucial role in slowing the spread of the virus.

But in the face of public anger, the government was forced to clarify that only limited data would be collected and that it could be used only in connection with the outbreak, after criticism that the plan could infringe citizens’ privacy rights.

Peter Pellegrini, the former prime minister, raised questions about whether the data could be misused, and said that the measure was an extreme step that would only be justified under a state of emergency, and “only for specific people in whom the disease has been confirmed or are in compulsory quarantine”.

Maria Kolikova, Slovakia’s justice minister, acknowledged that the move went beyond what would be acceptable under normal circumstances, but insisted that in the face of the epidemic, the right to privacy was not absolute.

“It is the same with other rights, for example freedom of speech: freedom of speech is not absolute. There are certain reasons why we can limit these rights . . . I’m certain that if the protection of health and life is at stake, legislation like this is appropriate,” she said.

The unease over the Slovak law echoes debates around Europe, which has displaced Asia as the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, and where deep-seated concerns about privacy make adopting some of the more draconian approaches used to fight the outbreak in Asia a complicated process.

In Germany, where hostility to any form of mass surveillance is deeply entrenched as a result of the widespread eavesdropping in East Germany under communism, the government was forced to backtrack last week on proposals to use “technical means” to identify whom sick people had been in contact with, after opposition politicians branded them a “blank cheque” for surveillance.

Other countries have pushed ahead. Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, said last week that they were tracing people with Italian telephone numbers, while the Czech Republic is planning to launch a “smart quarantine system” in April — although its citizens will have to consent to being monitored.

A doctor at a hospital in Czestochowa, Poland, on Monday © Grzegorz Skowronek/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said on Tuesday that his government would also introduce “electronic solutions” to ensure that people meant to be in quarantine really were staying at home. However, the government has yet to come up with details and opposition MPs have expressed scepticism about the idea.

“One thing is the privacy, and another is the technical issues: what if you go out without your phone? We are not China, we have different providers and they are not, and should not be controlled by the government. I’m not sure if it’s the best idea,” said Agnieszka Pomaska, an MP from Poland’s biggest opposition grouping, Civic Coalition.

“If the government wants to do this it should go through parliamentary procedures so it can be scrutinised.”

In an effort to ease public concerns, Slovakia’s new government, which took office at the weekend, said that the new powers would only last until December 31, and that the data would only be accessible to the Public Health Office.

However, the technical details of the programme have yet to be worked out, and Tomas Krissak, an analyst at the Open Society Foundation, said that the government’s botched communications about what exactly the new system would involve had allowed public concerns about its purpose to take root.

“If I had to express my gut feeling I would say that [the government’s plan] is pretty innocent, and it won’t be used for the evil purposes that some people suspect,” he said. “But I understand how much unease this can bring to a society which is already afraid, which is in lockdown, and which needs to trust the government more than ever before — and now we don’t really have the conditions to do that.”

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