Germany Calls For Unified EU Corona-Tracing App for Tighter Privacy Controls

By James Carstensen | April 15, 2020 | 8:05pm EDT
A woman in Berlin checks her phone. (Photo by David Gannon/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman in Berlin checks her phone. (Photo by David Gannon/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – A new European technology platform to facilitate the development of mobile apps backed by the German government is prompting debate over privacy and surveillance on the use of mobile apps to track coronavirus infections.

The government on Wednesday endorsed the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) platform, a project by a consortium of more than 130 research organizations from eight countries, to enable “contact tracing” apps to trace infected individuals.

As governments mull lockdown exit strategies, they have been looking to digital contract tracing apps as an efficient alternative to costly economic shutdowns.

Users are required to record if they become infected and the app – which uses Bluetooth technology to track location data – would then automatically alert any other users with whom the ill person has been in contact.

Privacy concerns center on the potential misuse of such information, in combination with other data such as GPS or IP addresses. Some worry that data may, for example, be shared inappropriately with health insurance companies, or that authoritarian governments could use it for surveillance purposes.

The aim of the PEPPS-PT platform is to address those concerns by effectively standardizing the underlying technology.

“The use of digital ‘contact tracing’ is a key measure to support the quick and complete tracking of contacts,” the German government said in a statement. “It will be important that large sections of the population use this opportunity to quickly learn that they have had contact with an infected person so that they can react quickly.”

At a time where several European Union countries have begun developing or releasing their own tracing apps – amid gradual plans to reopen economies – the government called on countries to deploy apps based on PEPP-PT, which would ensure compliance with European data protection rules.

Austria’s Red Cross launched an app which has already been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people, while Ireland and Poland have announced similar national initiatives. Two German institutes are working on new apps. So far, all run on a voluntary basis.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned against a patchwork of differing smartphone apps, saying that using PEPP-PT as a European standard would ensure personal privacy while speeding the removal of travel restrictions and border controls.

“It is important that we do not end up with a patchwork quilt of 27 corona apps and 27 data protection regimes, but that we proceed as coordinated as possible,” he told the Funke media group on Tuesday.

A week earlier, technology firms Apple and Google, normally rivals, announced they would collaborate on releasing tools to support the development of corona tracing apps.

While the two tech giants pledged to use a “decentralized” system that would not make personal data accessible, critics are concerned about handing more data over to them.

“What we need is an independent party that allows governments some kind of control over what happens with this medical and contact data,” Julian Teicke, chief executive of insurance tech firm Wefox Group, told Reuters. “Data needs to be sent to a neutral place – not to Apple and Google.”

Thomas Lohninger, executive director of the Vienna-based digital rights NGO epicenter.works, said that since contact tracing apps deal with sensitive health data “it would be good if Europe were to lead the way on a privacy-friendly solution to this problem.”

“PEPP-PT is successfully leading the way towards a decentralized solution for tracing COVID-19 infections. But this initiative is very young and so far hasn’t delivered on their promises with a concrete solution,” he said.

Lohninger added that the problem becomes more difficult to solve on a European level, as such an app would need to integrate with national health systems.

Rather than a unified E.U. app, however, he said it would ultimately make for sense “to aim for interoperability,” in order to facilitate the easing of travel restrictions.

Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said the privacy versus effectiveness trade-off is problematic, since apps that are completely privacy-preserving may rely on too many voluntary factors and end up being almost useless.

“My expectation is that governments will not find this approach sufficiently effective, and will want to derogate at least in one respect: once someone tests positive, the anonymized IDs stored in his/her own phone are reidentified and chased, in order to ensure that these people are tested and, if positive, forced to stay home,” he said.

“This is not the way PEPP-PT currently works, and it would obviously entail a restriction of personal freedom in the name of public health,” he said. “Anything that could be done to ensure that citizens can transparently check whether their governments are indeed keeping their data for a short timeframe would be more than welcome.”

Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, seemingly acknowledged the risk last week, calling it a “trade-off.”

“What is more important to us? Data protection or that people can return to normal? Data protection or saving lives?” he tweeted. “Everything is based on voluntary action – until there is a vaccination we will have to continue to find measures.”

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