UK Mobile Networks Enlisted by Government to Send Out Emergency Coronavirus Alert

By Shabana Arif on at

If you got a text message from the government today, telling you to stay at home, you weren't the only one.

Initially trialled (successfully!) seven years ago, public emergency alerts via mobile were never rolled out on a large scale. Countries like South Korea and the US have these measures in place already, with network operators working with the government to ensure that SMS alerts are disseminated to everyone. Today's message follows last night's address during which Boris Johnson told the nation that it was in lock down for the next three weeks, with an update on the situation to come after that.

It would have been helpful if text alerts were used prior to this point, without relying on media outlets to spread news and updates, resulting in a large number or uninformed - and misinformed - people swanning about as if we weren't in the midst of a pandemic. If you didn't get the message yet, this is what it looks like:

It cuts to the chase, tells you in no uncertain terms to stay at home, and has a handy link to the government's coronavirus website. Toby Harris, former chair of the National Trading Standards Board, who advocated for the SMS alert system, told The Guardian that the hurdle that stopped it in its track was a quibble over over who was going to foot the bill:

"It’s fallen between government departments as to who is going to pick up the bill, who’s going to lead on it, and all sorts of issues."

More worryingly, it seems that the government is talking to BT/EE in order to gain access to users' phone location data, to make sure the new laws are being adhered to. The Guardian reports that this data will supposedly be anonymous, so they won't know its you specifically that's hotfooting it down to Tesco every other day for a Creme Egg.

O2 is also helping in a similar fashion but denied claims that the data us being used to ensure that citizens were following social distancing guidelines. A spokesperson told Metro that the claims were "not true and not representative of how all phone networks are being asked to help the government." O2 says the data relates to "broad mass movements" as opposed to individual people's comings and goings. The network's site says it's "working with the government to help them use mobile data and technology to manage the pandemic."

Either way, the government needs to sort its shit out, and network operators need to be transparent with what they intend to do with out data. [The Verge]

Feature image credit: Unsplash