The European Data Protection Supervisor (aka EDPS) has called for a pan-European smartphone app to help track the spread of the new coronavirus. This instead of the existing hodge-podge of apps used in EU nations which could breach people’s privacy rights.
Faced with tens of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, governments across the continent have launched, or plan to quickly launch smartphone tracking apps to trace people who came into contact with those infected and to monitor people under quarantine.
The measures have triggered criticism and warnings from some data privacy activists. The worry is that in order to monitor future outbreaks they may become permanent once this crisis is over. Others doubt they will be effective unless most people agree to use them.
At the same time as this development, Google and Facebook are participating in a project with researchers at Carnegie Mellon to track location and friendship data on users. Again, some have suggested that whilst this is useful during the current pandemic, it must not become a constant, with governmental agencies around the world getting hold of the sensitive data via proxies.
The EDPS said the use of temporary broadcast identifiers and bluetooth technology for contact tracing protected both privacy and personal data, but voiced concerns about the variety of apps sprouting up.
“Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a pan-European model COVID-19 mobile application, coordinated at EU level,” Wojciech Wiewiorowski, the head of the EU privacy watchdog, said in a statement.
“Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start,” he said.
With restrictions on social contacts and free movement showing first successes in “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic, some governments are looking to ease lockdowns and shift to a policy of containing any renewed COVID-19 outbreaks.
They hope that smartphone technology will help them speed up the task of tracing people who are at risk of infection after coming into contact with someone who tests positive – until now a task mainly done with a pen, paper and a telephone.
Germany threw its weight behind a proposed technology platform, unveiled last week, that would make it possible to roll out apps that can help trace the path of infection across borders while preserving privacy.
The initiative, which is called PEPP-PT, or Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing, brings together more than 130 researchers from eight countries and broadly follows the approach taken by Singapore’s TraceTogether app.
“The worst thing would be if we had… a collection of different tracking apps in Europe,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told a news conference in Berlin.
PEPP-PT is expected to launch its platform this week with a German coronavirus contact tracing app – backed by the Robert Koch Institute that is coordinating the national coronavirus response – to follow.
Austria’s Red Cross has already launched a Stop Corona app that makes use of Bluetooth connections between smartphones and has been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people.
Ireland and Poland have announced similar national initiatives, adding to the impression that EU-wide coordination is lacking.
Via our content partners at Reuters. By Foo Yun Chee. Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin. Editing by Mark Potter and Gareth Jones.