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Chancellor of Justice probes use of location data to combat coronavirus outbreak

Teleoperator Telia has provided government with a custom-made location data app to analyse traffic flows nationwide.

Varusmies pysäytti liikennettä Uudenmaan ja Varsinais-Suomen rajalla kantatiellä 52 Raaseporissa.
A conscript directs traffic approaching a police border checkpoint in Raseborg (Raasepori), southwest Finland. Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

The Office of the Chancellor of Justice has launched an investigation into how the government and different ministries have been using technology and location data to combat the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus.

The chancellor's office took a special interest in how traffic monitoring is being conducted, following the publication of a statement by teleoperator Telia, in which it said it had handed over anonymised phone location data to the government.

Location data shows where people's phones connect with the mobile network in different places and allows for the monitoring of traffic flows as well as people's movements. Anonymisation means that it it not possible to identify individual users from the mass of data provided.

One week ago, Telia said in a press release that it had begun "a custom-made location tracking [service] for the government during the state of emergency".

The chancellor's office wants to determine how and for what purposes such location data will be used. It also wants to know what other technological tracking methods are being used, for example drones.

Agreement signed in late March

Government security director Ahti Kurvinen told Yle that the administration had signed a monitoring agreement with Telia at the end of March.

"Telia offered a location data app when it was reported that people returning to Finland via the Helsinki-Vantaa airport posed a threat of the uncontrolled spread of the epidemic," Kurvinen said.

The cabinet's coronavirus war room uses the data provided by the app to analyse situations such as traffic flows in various parts of the country.

"We can use the app to determine the amount of traffic moving in and out of Uusimaa. We can monitor the entire country. And Telia is also offering these services in other countries. I know that it is being used elsewhere," Kurvinen added.

"You need to take into consideration that we may have to seal off some other areas apart from Uusimaa," he pointed out.

Analysis of the data assumes that subscribers to other providers apart from Telia display the same behaviour when they move from one place to another.

Data contributing to decisions on rolling back restrictions

The government security chief stressed that use of the app does not infringe on personal privacy.

"People can put their minds at ease. Individuals are not identified. We are monitoring large masses of data and that allows us to see how people move between provinces and municipalities," he explained.

Data about traffic flows between different provinces is combined with other information such as infection analyses to provide a more accurate picture of whether or not the government's emergency measures are having the desired effect, Kurvinen explained.

"The data is used to compile a situation report that is provided for the use of the government, the prime minister and the country's top leadership. All of the data that we generate twice a day is at the prime minister's disposal."

Kurvinen said that when government decides on whether or not to roll back restrictions next week, it will be based on data.

"The security classification of the information is such that I cannot go into it any further at this point. But traffic has certainly slowed down inside Uusimaa and at border crossings. In other words, the restrictions have yielded the desired results," he noted.

Kurvinen stressed that the use of Telia's monitoring app did not require any special permission or even the invocation of the Emergency Powers Act.

"These are normal operations that do not even require exceptional circumstances, let alone the Emergency Powers Act. No one's [personal] data is exposed and no laws are being broken," he concluded.

Slew of grievances over emergency measures

Otherwise, private individuals have filed a number of complaints with the Chancellor of Justice and the Parliamentary Ombudsman over the government's use of location data to try and slow the pace of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The grievances concern the actions of the government, Interior Ministry, the National Police Board, and even Parliament's Constitutional Law Committee.

Other complaints focus on the use of technical equipment to monitor the border between Uusimaa and the rest of the country.

Complaints about the actions of the Helsinki police department have also been sent to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

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