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EU unveils coronavirus app tracking guidelines

Lewis Sanders IV
April 8, 2020

The European Commission has called for a pan-European approach to using mobile technologies to curb the outbreak. But privacy experts have warned that such tools could undermine central features of the European project.

A young man in Milan, wearing a facemask, uses his smartphone. Archive photo from February 24, 2020.
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photos/L. Bruno

The European Commission on Wednesday recommended establishing a pan-European approach to using mobile technologies and data to better tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Commission called for the development of a so-called toolbox — an array of policy instruments — to use such technologies to better inform the public and track the effect of various measures aimed at curbing the outbreak, including social distancing and contact tracing.

"Mobile applications can support health authorities at national and EU level in monitoring and containing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," the Commission said. "In combination with appropriate testing strategies and contact tracing, the applications can be particularly relevant in providing information on the level of virus circulation, in assessing the effectiveness of physical distancing and confinement measures, and in informing de-escalation strategies."

A young woman wearing a protective mask looks at her smartphone while passing by a grafitti representing two big watching eyes in Berlin, Germany on April 1, 2020.
Some of the most promising technological tools that could help contain the coronavirus carry inherent privacy trade-offsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E. Contini

Concerns about 'mass surveillance'

The recommendation is an attempt to homogenize an approach to the use of data and mobile applications after several EU governments said they were exploring options to develop mandatory apps for citizens.

Read more:  Will Germans trade privacy for coronavirus protection?

Cybersecurity and data privacy experts have expressed concerns about the extent to which such apps could infringe on privacy or serve as a mass surveillance tool in the post-pandemic world.

"Serious times require serious measures and innovative ideas," said Niego Naranjo, who heads European Digital Rights association. "Mass surveillance is not innovation, nor is it serious or legal either."

Read more:  What do futurists imagine for the post-coronavirus-pandemic world?

In the recommendation, the Commission conceded that such technologies could be abused and, as such, undermine central tenets of the European project.

"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," the Commission said. "The proposed approach aims to uphold the integrity of the single market and protect fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly the right to privacy and protection of personal data."

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