The appeals to the Germans to stay at home have become increasingly urgent in recent days. On Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute also urged citizens: “If people continue to be so mobile, it will be difficult to contain the virus,” said RKI boss Lothar Wieler. From now on, the institute wants to monitor in a completely new way whether the Germans follow the warning. The institute uses cell phone data to control the mobility of its citizens.

The researchers can use the information from 46 million mobile customers to map movement flows in order to calculate prognoses about the spread of Covid-19, said a Telekom spokeswoman. The information could be broken down to the federal states and the district level.


Telekom had made data available to the RKI for the first time on Tuesday evening. “Statements about the whereabouts or traces of movement of individual mobile phone users, i.e. the individual tracking of infected people, are not possible,” says the spokeswoman. Data on specific customers are only disclosed after a judicial order.

The five gigabyte package contains anonymized mass data. They are technically unsuitable for tracking individual infected people. In addition, the spokeswoman says that this is not legally permissible. “Our mobile network is a communication network, not a surveillance network.” Radio cell queries about individual infected people would make no sense. On the one hand, all mobile phone numbers would have to be found in the radio cell, which represents a double breach of data protection. On the other hand, radio cells are much too large to make exact statements about close contacts.

Telekom has been marketing such anonymized data packets through its subsidiary Motionlogic for years. An RKI spokeswoman says that the institute bought such data for an older project in Berlin a few years ago. The RKI has now received the overall data for Germany free of charge.


Federal data protection officer considers disclosure to be harmless

The RKI also emphasizes several times that it is anonymous population data. “This is a very important difference,” said the spokeswoman. “This data shows, for example, how many people move between Kreuzberg and Schönberg on a weekday. Just as you cannot identify an infected person from the number of cases in a district, you could not identify individual individuals from the traffic flow data.”

The forwarding of the data “in the selected form is harmless to data protection law”, says the Federal Data Protection Officer Ulrich Kelber. At least 30 data sets would be combined to make subsequent re-personalization more difficult. “Especially under the current circumstances, there is nothing to prevent this data being passed on for the purpose of health protection,” says Kelber.

It is not known whether other large German mobile phone providers pass on data. The RKI did not respond to the question. Telefónica said that there had been no such request from authorities or institutes so far and said: “We are happy to discuss this matter in order to help contain the corona virus by means of such analyzes.” Vodafone has not yet responded.


China and Israel access GPS data

Governments in many places now want health authorities and research institutes to access location data from cell phone users to prevent Covid-19 from spreading further. Some subordinate data protection to health protection. Some of the measures have a deep impact on the privacy of citizens.

“I see that data protection is sometimes neglected in other countries during the corona pandemic,” says Kelber. China and Israel, for example, access GPS data from individual users, which enable precise and seamless monitoring. So far, this sensitive information has only been used by the Israeli secret service to prevent terrorist attacks. Now Israel wants to warn people who have been in contact with infected people and check compliance with the quarantine. Italy and Belgium are discussing similar measures.

In the United States, the big tech companies are supposed to open their data to stop Covid-19. As the Washington Post The US government reportedly approached Facebook, Google and other companies to work together to use the data to fight the pandemic.


RKI is planning an app for German users

A Google spokesman confirms the report and says that it is exclusively anonymous mass data, such as Google Maps in the form of waiting times and traffic data already publicly showing. The talks are at an early stage, the disclosure of individual location data is excluded. There are currently no such plans in Germany. Facebook has not yet replied to a request.

In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute is not satisfied with Deutsche Telekom data. One is working on an app to also evaluate personalized cell phone data, says RKI boss Lothar Wieler. The Federal Data Protection Officer is also involved: “We are in contact with the Robert Koch Institute to advise on this development in terms of data protection law,” says Kelber. It is not yet known how exactly this app could function technically and what data it should access.

At least the development in Germany at RKI should be in better hands than an Israeli counterpart: reported there Bloombergthat the NSO Group offer a surveillance app to collect location data. The company otherwise produces spyware and is said to have helped, among other things, spy on human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists.