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EU-wide Covid-19 contact tracing best for privacy, watchdog says

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The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has called for an EU-wide contact tracing app, to replace the patchwork of apps being developed and deployed across the bloc.

A promising method for containing the novel coronavirus is contact tracing; tracking everybody that an infected person has been in contact with and recommending self-isolation in order to prevent the virus spreading further.

Contact tracing has been carried out manually in Taiwan – which has a comparatively small number of confirmed cases – with encouraging outcomes. This labour-intensive process could be scaled up with contact tracing apps, which use Bluetooth to keep a record of everyone else with the app that the user has come into close contact with, sending alerts to all potentially infected users if a person they have recently been in close proximity with later tests positive for Covid-19.

A recent University of Oxford study concluded that a contact tracing app, adopted and used widely alongside social distancing, enhanced hygiene and other measures, could help ease the UK out of its current lockdown and move towards a less draconian situation in which confirmed and likely infections are contained while people return to more ordinary daily routines.

Singapore has already rolled out a contact tracing app called TraceTogether, while other governments – including the Irish, Austrian, Polish and German governments - have been considering introducing contact tracing apps of their own.

The EDPS has proposed that the introduction of a pan-European contact tracing app could assuage some of the concerns of privacy and data protection campaigners. The EDPS indicated that it would be easier to carry out contact tracing responsibly if the technology is managed at the EU-level, rather than with a hodgepodge of apps rolled out within the EU by various governments, local authorities, charities and other groups.

“Given these divergences, the [EDPS] calls for a pan-European model Covid-19 mobile application coordinated at EU level,” said Wojciech Wiewiorowski, head of the EU privacy regulator, in a statement. “Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start.”

The German government has expressed support for a proposed contact tracing initiative: the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. This initiative is being coordinated by more than 130 researchers from eight countries and aims to introduce an app similar to TraceTogether which would allow infections to be tracked across national borders within the EU.

“The worst thing would be if we had […] a collection of different tracking apps in Europe,” said Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a press conference in Berlin.

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