Coronavirus tracking apps must be 'voluntary' and 'time-limited', EU insists

EU Copyright Lukasz Kobus/EU/Lukasz Kobus
By Maria Psara, Joanna Gill
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As concerns mount about data privacy and coronavirus pandemic monitoring, the EU says privacy must be respected when countries consider mobile phone tracing apps.


As Europe looks towards loosening lockdown restrictions - containing new outbreaks remains critical.

Mobile phone tracking applications are part of the solution to monitor the spread, but it means our privacy is invaded.

"We need to be very clear on whether we want this and whether It is acceptable or not," says Patrick Breyer (MEP, Greens/EFA) from the German pirate party. "There is a lack of respect for fundamental rights on the side of the EU Commission and I think that they need to get their act together and stand up for our rights because there is no contradiction between effectively addressing this crisis and respecting fundamental rights."

To address to all these concerns, the European Commission is unveiling coronavirus app tracking guidelines on Thursday.

"It is fundamental that the installation and the use of an app is voluntary,"Johannes Bahrke, Spokesperson of the European Commission told us ahead of the launch. "We want to ensure citizens that they can trust in these apps, that they respect security, privacy, data protection and they are effective so that people use them."

The EU's Industry chief Thierry Breton released a statement to the same effect saying:

"Strong privacy safeguards are a pre-requisite for the uptake of these apps, and therefore their usefulness. While we should be innovative and make the best use of technology in fighting the pandemic, we will not compromise on our values and privacy requirements.”

Privacy concerns have been front-and-centre in the discussions around COVID-19. In the public debate, the role of privacy professionals is important.

"We can look to the legacy from 9/11 for example, where a number of security measures were put in place and those who are standing today as we travel globally," explains Paul Jordan, Managing Director Europe – IAPP (International Association of Privacy Professionals).

"One of the big questions is how long these measures will be in place and also once those measures come to an end, what will happen to data that have been collected," says Jordan.

To answer the challenge of protecting health and privacy - scientists, tech and other experts have created the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. It is a tool that provides standards, technology and services to countries and app developers.

"We don't need to use geolocation, we don't need to use your phone number, we don't need to use your address or any of that," explains Chris Boos, from the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing team.

Boos explains that they use 'proximity tracing' in order to see who you have been in contact with and for how long. They then combine that data with how physically active you have been. This data should be enough to ensure the pandemic is closely monitored, without invading privacy.

For many this will still raise questions about how information on individuals is kept, and how identifiable they are.

In answer to this, the Commission stresses that the data stored in the server "can be anonymised by aggregation."

"They can alert people who have been in proximity for a certain duration to an infected person to get tested or self-isolate, without revealing the identity of the people infected," Thursday's press release reads. 

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