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25th Jul 2021

EU agrees not to use location data in tracing apps

  • Experts warn it is difficult to hold accountable all the coronavirus apps that are appearing on an almost daily basis (Photo: Barney Moss)

Member states agreed on Thursday (16 April) that Covid-19 mobile applications should not process the location data of individuals, because "it is not necessary nor recommended for the purpose of contact tracing".

"Collecting an individual's movements in the context of contact tracing apps would create major security and privacy issues," states the EU toolbox adopted by EU countries and supported by the European Commission.

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These apps should also be both temporary and voluntary, while they should ensure that no user knows the identity of any infected persons or of close contacts of infected persons.

And the storage of such data should also be time-limited to enhance security and privacy.

"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," said the commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, in a statement on Thursday.

However, experts warned that it is difficult to hold accountable all the apps that are appearing day-by-day in all different member states.

This is why the European Data Protection Supervisor called for a pan-European Covid-19 app, amid the ongoing proliferation of country-specific apps.

This toolbox is part of the guidelines for the use of technology and data proposed by the commission last week, which also focuses on a common scheme for using anonymised and aggregated data on the mobility of populations - provided by telecom operators since 23 March 2020.

Moreover, the toolbox is accompanied by guidance on data protection for such mobile apps.

Users should be able to give their "specific" consent for each functionality of the app (e.g. contact tracing and warning or symptom checker) - even if the health authorities want to contact them via phone or SMS.

Likewise, individuals upheld their rights under the EU's data protection rules, such as the right to be forgotten or access data - although restrictions might be put in place.

The commission also makes a call for transparency and recommends that the source code of Covid-19 tracing apps should be made public and available for review.

Next steps

Given the privacy concerns that the use of these technologies give rise to, the EU's data protection board and national data protection bodies are in charge of monitoring if these applications are fully aligned with the EU's data protection rules (GDPR).

Public health authorities are expected to assess the effectiveness of the apps at the national and cross-border level by the end of the month, while the commission will asses and publish periodic reports from June onwards.

Several MEPs are urging a debate in the European Parliament over the ethical and practical implications of these apps for citizens' fundamental rights.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have teamed up to open up their operating systems - iOS and Android - to allow developers to build Covid-19 tracing apps.

Under this new framework, they would use bluetooth to track who has been in contact with coronavirus cases rather than location data.

Analysis

Coronavirus: Are we trading privacy for security?

The response of EU countries to the coronavirus outbreak has prompted unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation. Privacy campaigners, and MEPs, have warned of future adverse side-effects.

Privacy issues arise as governments track virus

Governments are attempting to track the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe using mobile phone data. When it comes to data protection, exceptions are allowed in times of crisis but must be limited in time and scope, critics warn.

MEPs: 'Mass surveillance' still possible under US privacy deal

A delegation of MEPs from the civil liberties committee have warned of the remaining "deficiencies" of the EU-US 'privacy shield' framework, amid concerns over the efficiency of this mechanism to protect EU citizens' fundamental rights.

Experts push decentralised Covid19 apps to gain trust

A decentralised approach to coronavirus contact-tracing apps is starting to gain ground in the privacy debate within the EU and beyond - especially after centralised solutions are reported to pose a risk for fundamental rights.

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