A worker wearing protective garments sanitises the Duomo square, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in central Milan, Italy March 31, 2020

EU drafts unified policy on Covid-19 contact tracing apps

Image credit: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

The EU is drawing up common rules for mobile apps used to track the spread of coronavirus. It aims to make better use of the technology as well as address privacy concerns.

The coordinated strategy as EU countries prepare a range of contact tracing apps. This has triggered criticism from some data privacy activists who are concerned that mass data collection could become permanent if not tightly controlled.

European Commissioner for values and transparency, Vera Jourova, said a joint move to harness technology to help contain the pandemic offers an efficient solution to challenge these issues raised: “I fully support a European approach for the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic in line with our fundamental rights. We will ensure this approach is transparent, proportional and based on people’s trust,” she said.

According to the Commission, a fragmented and uncoordinated approach has hampered the effectiveness of measures to tackle the pandemic and has also caused serious harm to the region’s single market and to fundamental rights and freedoms.

Describing it as a toolbox, the EU executive said the pan-European approach would include a common scheme for using anonymous, aggregated data to trace people who come into contact with those infected. It will also be used to monitor those under quarantine.

The Commission said there will be a methodology to monitor and assess the effectiveness of these mobile apps, their interoperability and cross-border implications and whether they comply with security, privacy and data protection rules.

To assuage privacy concerns, the Commission added there will be a strict limit on the processing of personal data. They also disclosed that this data will be destroyed once the virus is under control and these countries have “flattened the curve”.

EU countries will work with the Commission and the European Data Protection Board to develop the principles by 15 April. The European Data Protection Supervisor called on Monday (6 April) for a pan-European mobile app. These policies being drawn up come after the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for an EU-wide contact tracing app, to replace the patchwork of apps currently being developed across the bloc.

But in midst of these rules being drawn up, authorities in Italy have announced they are working on introducing a smartphone app that would help health services trace the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus as the government looks at ways of gradually lifting a lockdown imposed a month ago.

Innovation minister Paola Pisano acknowledged that launching the app would raise major issues of privacy and data control, hence why the EU is creating these new policies, something which would have to be resolved before it is launched. 

However, Pisano argued that the technology could help reduce contagion and limit the impact of a disease that has killed more than 17,000 people in Italy in just over a month. “This is a delicate terrain. I think we are all conscious of that and we must remain so,” she told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday (8 April).

Governments across the world, grappling with the economic devastation caused by weeks of lockdown, are “desperate” for ways of getting people back to work while avoiding a deadly second wave of the epidemic.

On 24 March, Italy launched a fast tender monitoring and remote medical support app where it received hundreds of proposals which are currently under evaluation by a specially created task force.

Pisano said this app would be only one part of a wider monitoring and support system and would function on a voluntary basis. She also said it would have to be limited to clearly defined ends and guarantee anonymity as well as meet technical requirements. This app would record when it came into proximity with another smartphone user who also has the app, for how long and at what distance and if a person tested positive for the coronavirus. Here, authorities would be able to trace the contacts and alert them.

At the end of March, the Irish Times reported that data protection experts have said a tracing app could be a powerful tool to help fight the disease but cautioned that its design should be compliant with privacy and data processing standards. This follows after the Health Service Executive announced that it is likely that a smartphone app to facilitate contact tracing will be rolled out in the next 10 days to people across the UK and Ireland.

Also at the start of the month, the Polish government made a smartphone app  which involves people uploading selfies when prompted so that officials can pinpoint their exact locations — mandatory for anyone potentially infected with Covid-19.

Poland was among the first countries to roll out a smartphone app that collects reams of personal information, including people’s location and digital photos, in its fight to combat the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government have said it will monitor the mobile phones of those diagnosed with Covid-19 to ensure they do not break quarantine, marking the latest measure to stem an outbreak that has surged over the last month.

According to the presidency’s communications director, authorities in the country will start tracking citizens and send them a message and call them each time they leave their homes. These individuals will be asked to return home and police will penalise those who continue to violate quarantine rules, it said, adding that Turkish law allows for processing of personal data without consent for “exceptional aims”.

Since the first case was confirmed on 11 March, Turkey’s coronavirus cases have surged to more than 34,000 with 725 deaths as of Tuesday, 7 April. Turkey’s capital Ankara has taken strict measures to limit social contact, quarantining some towns, banning mass prayers, closing schools, bars and restaurants and limiting inter-city travel. Moreover, President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called on citizens to impose their own quarantine but stopped short of imposing a broad stay-at-home order.

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