Europe split over approach to virus contact tracing apps

Italy is preparing to join Germany in launching a Covid 19 contact-tracing mobile application that will avoid location tracking and a centralised database, opting for a standard created by technology companies Apple and Google that they regard as more privacy friendly.

The move underlines an increasing split in Europe over the use of technology to try to keep the pandemic under control once countries ease movement restrictions

Switzerland and Austria also opted last week to use the US tech giants’ standards for their apps. However, France, the UK and Norway – one of the first European countries to launch its app – are all using a technology in which a central server holds data on who came into contact with an infected person. Proponents of this approach say this facilitates the work of health officials but critics claim it raises privacy concerns.

Contact tracing apps aim to track coronavirus infections among the public – a key element to containing new outbreaks as the lockdowns that have shuttered much of the world economy are lifted. Officials at Apple and Google, alongside privacy campaigners, have urged public health authorities to take a decentralised approach in order to gain people’s trust that their intimate data would not be stored by health authorities.

European countries’ different technical approaches raise questions about interoperability between the app platforms, which could cause problems when borders eventually reopen. 

The Italian mobile application, called Immuni and being developed by Bending Spoons, a Milan-based app design company set up in 2013, should be ready to launch within weeks. The app will use a smartphone’s wireless Bluetooth signal to track potential points of contact with the virus. No personal information – such as names, addresses, phone numbers or device location – will be included in the data. 

Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s commissioner in charge of managing the Covid-19 crisis, said this week that any data gathered by the country’s app would be encrypted and there would be a “full and absolute guarantee of privacy”.

Both Germany and Italy have said they plan to incorporate Apple and Google’s technology into their designs to simplify the process of warning citizens when they have come into close contact with individuals who are later diagnosed with coronavirus.

France and the UK, by contrast, have indicated they are likely to collect users’ contact data in a central server controlled by the government, snubbing Apple and Google’s “peer to peer” technique which stores such information primarily on users’ handsets.

Norway’s Smittestopp tracing app, which launched on April 16, uses a centralised data repository using both Bluetooth and GPS. Developed by state-owned company Simula, more than a quarter of Norway’s population have already downloaded Smittestopp despite privacy concerns from the Norwegian data regulator and academics. 

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, the digital arm of the UK’s National Health Service, said this week he was confident the UK’s app design would strike the right balance between confidentiality and utility when it launches in two to three weeks.

“I do believe that what we’ve done is respectful of people’s privacy and at the same time effective in keeping people safe,” he said at a hearing of the House of Commons’ science and technology committee. “The whole model rests on people having randomised IDs. The only point where people have to tell us who they are is when they need to order a test.”

The Italian plan is for the Immuni app to be voluntarily downloaded by users, who can then upload their infection status immediately after being tested.

Google and Apple released an initial test version of their software platforms for building tracing apps this week, allowing developers to begin integrating it into their designs ahead of a release to consumers expected in mid-May.

In the coming months, the US technology companies have said they will incorporate the technology into the iPhone and Android smartphone operating systems to accelerate adoption. 

France is developing an app called StopCovid based on the decentralised technology and aims to have an initial version ready by May 11, when the country’s lockdown will start to be lifted. 

French experts working on the project have also argued that the decentralised model is more secure than Apple-Google’s standard. But in one concession to privacy concerns, France has already committed to use only Bluetooth technology to track encounters between an infected person and others, and not location data from GPS. 

France said it is in discussions with Apple and Google to try to find ways to reconcile its approach with their platform, but for now is going ahead without the tech giants’ tools. 

In Germany’s Bundestag on Wednesday, digitalisation minister Dorothee Bär appealed to developers to ensure that any decentralised app would be compatible with those in other European countries.

She added that the Federal Chancellery was in exchange with neighbouring countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, in order to avoid a scenario in which the apps could not monitor cross-border traffic.

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo and Joe Miller in Frankfurt

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