Common standards for contact-tracing apps in EU ‘a matter of urgency’

8 Apr 2020

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With many nations developing their own coronavirus contact-tracing apps, the EU now wants to kick off a unified effort.

With the eventual goal of lifting containment measures for the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission (EC) has announced plans to develop a single approach to contact-tracing app development “as a matter of urgency”.

Many nations in Europe and the rest of the world have proposed various apps and mobile tools to help track the virus’s spread. However, privacy concerns have been raised in Ireland and elsewhere regarding where user data generated in these apps would be stored.

The recommendations announced by the EC could include a single app that can model and predict the evolution of the virus through anonymised and aggregated mobile location data.

The EC said that while efforts to create contact-tracing and symptom-checking apps could be valuable, “a fragmented and uncoordinated approach risks hampering the effectiveness of measures aimed at combating the Covid-19 crisis, whilst also causing serious harm to the single market and to fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Discussions have been ongoing with mobile operators in EU member states since 23 March regarding the use of anonymised metadata for modelling and predicting the propagation of the virus. Shared with the Joint Research Centre, the EC said data will not be shared with third parties and will be stored only for the length of the current crisis.

‘Europe is stronger when it acts united’

“We will continue to ensure full respect of Europeans’ fundamental rights,” said Didier Reynders, the EC commissioner for justice.

“Europe’s data protection rules are the strongest in the world and they are fit also for this crisis, providing for exceptions and flexibility. We work closely with data protection authorities and will come forward with guidance on the privacy implications soon.”

The EC also recommended that national apps must be interoperable, share common solutions and share any data with epidemiological organisations such as the European Centre for Disease Control.

Speaking of the recommendations, the EC’s commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said: “Digital technologies, mobile applications and mobility data have enormous potential to help understand how the virus spreads and to respond effectively.

“With this recommendation, we put in motion a European coordinated approach for the use of such apps and data, without compromising on our EU privacy and data protection rules, and avoiding the fragmentation of the internal market. Europe is stronger when it acts united.”

Member states will now convene to develop the app toolbox by 15 April, which will include EC guidance on being GDPR compliant. A report on the actions taken by member states must be reported – and available for peer review – by 31 May.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic