European Officials Set Controls for Virus Tracking Apps

The European Commission said the smartphone apps should be discontinued once the Covid-19 crisis is over. 

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – The European Commission has released a set of guidelines for coronavirus tracking apps in the European Union but privacy watchdogs are still skeptical.

For some EU countries that have been under lockdown for months, the peak of new Covid-19 infections has passed and governments are now searching for the best ways to reopen their economies. 

“Contact tracing apps to limit the spread of coronavirus can be useful, especially as part of member states’ exit strategies. However, strong privacy safeguards are a prerequisite for the uptake of these apps, and therefore their usefulness,” said Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton in a statement about the toolbox.

Contact tracing, the public health term for identifying anyone who might have come into contact with a sick person and their subsequent contacts, has been used for decades. It helped eradicate smallpox and located a main carrier of typhoid fever and has been used to control more recent outbreaks of HIV and SARS. 

But contact tracing is labor-intensive. During the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, contact tracers interviewed infected persons and their families, went to schools and workplaces and in some communities had to go door-to-door to question potential contacts. It’s also imperfect, as people do not always remember who they have had contact with or might intentionally lie about their whereabouts.

Some governments see smartphone apps as a cheaper and more effective alternative to the traditional method. 

Nearly 100,000 people have died in the EU since the Covid-19 outbreak started in February. Italy has been the worst hit, with some 20,000 dead, but deaths have been recorded in every country in the 27-member state political and economic union. 

The EU guidelines released Thursday recommend that apps rely on Bluetooth proximity technology, rather than GPS location data, to anonymously map contacts between infected people and others. The European Commission also said the apps should be discontinued once the crisis is over. 

But digital privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation has questioned the approach.

“Government has not shown that some intrusive technologies would work, such as phone location surveillance, which is insufficiently granular to identify when two people were close enough together to transmit the virus,” the group said in a statement. 

People stand apart as they line up to enter a supermarket in Rome on March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Virus tracking apps are already in use in some countries. Visitors to malls, public transit, and office buildings in China, the source of the coronavirus outbreak, must have QR codes on their phones scanned before they are allowed inside. In South Korea, the government is requiring people who have been caught defying quarantine by leaving their phones at home to wear wristbands to track their location. The government there publishes the movements of anyone diagnosed with Covid-19 on a central website. 

In Europe, however, governments must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, a 2016 EU law that governs the collection, processing and sharing of personal data. 

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have teamed up to create another contact tracing tool. Their system isn’t an app but is built directly into a smartphone’s operating system. It transmits an anonymous ID over a short distance and if your phone comes into contact with the phone of someone who has tested positive, you will get a notification along with information about testing. 

Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge proposed two apps for the Netherlands, one for contact tracing and one to report symptoms, during a press conference last week. In response, a group of privacy experts sent a letter to the government questioning the use of such technology.

“The use of tracking, tracing and health apps is very far-reaching. It is therefore important to take a critical look at the usefulness, necessity, and effectiveness of such apps, as well as the social and legal impact,” the letter said. 

The Dutch government announced Wednesday it had received 750 proposals for apps via a public request and it would now be evaluating the proposals before putting them out for public comment. 

Other EU countries have also announced their intentions to create apps. Germany has supported the Pan European Privacy Protecting Proximity Tracing initiative, led by a group of researchers who are developing an app similar to what is already being used in Singapore.

“PEPP-PT was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group wrote in their manifesto.

The Red Cross has also introduced an app in Austria. 

Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, announced at a press conference Sunday that his government has plans to develop an app to report symptoms to the National Health Service as well as alert users if they had contact with an infected person.

“We’re already testing this app and as we do this we’re working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in digital safety and ethics,” he said. 

But that plan hit a snag on Thursday when Apple and Google refused to support the British app after it was revealed that the information collected would be stored in a central database. The tech giants, who are usually the ones being criticized by governments for their privacy violations, will only support apps that store data in a decentralized way. 

Privacy isn’t the only concern. In Singapore, where usage of contact tracing app TraceTogether is voluntary, only about 20% of residents have installed it. No one knows exactly how many people would need to use such an app for it to be effective. One study from Oxford University said 60% of the population would need to use it.  

A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found the Netherlands had the highest smartphone ownership in Europe at 87%. In Greece, it was 59%. And for apps to be effective, users would need to carry their phones with them, turned on, at all times. The EU guidelines state that one of the essential rules for any app in the EU is that it is voluntary.

Poland has already made its app mandatory for anyone infected or potentially infected with corona.

“We will know if people are following the rules,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a press conference.

The Polish app tracks people using the location data on their phone to ensure they have remained indoors and requires users to submit selfies at random to ensure they haven’t left their phone behind. 

Countries like Poland and Hungary have used the emergency measures aimed at helping the government combat the spread of the coronavirus to consolidate power and undermine the rule of law

Critics of app proposals have pointed out that neither GPS nor Bluetooth are reliably accurate to within 6 feet, the distance of separation recommended by U.S. health officials, and neither technology can tell that people are separate by walls, such as in an apartment building.

“We need to seriously consider how technology might help improve public health. This investigation must be based on a realistic understanding of what technology and data can and cannot do, lest we divert attention, expertise, and financial resources from other, simpler but time-tested methods that are more effective,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement

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