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20th Sep 2020

Coronavirus

Vestager pushes tracing apps as key for summer holidays

  • The lack of coordination across member states could trigger problems when crossing borders (Photo: Alexander Lyubavin)

Covid-19 tracking mobile apps can be "a substantial support" for monitoring contact-tracing when easing lockdowns and restrictive measures, the EU commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said Monday (4 May).

"[The EU] can make the most of these apps to enable some travelling during the holiday season," Vestager, commissioner for the digital portfolio, told told MEPs of the internal market committee, referring to this summer.

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EU interior ministers had stressed last week (28 April) that a common approach for the use of tracing apps "could contribute to easing or abolishing internal border checks and potential lifting of entry restrictions on the external union borders".

The European Commission's digital chief said transparency and trust are key aspects for the voluntary uptake of the technology - whose effectiveness might depend on the number of people using it.

However, Vestager also warned that "without the technology, it will be very difficult to open [society] to the degree that we all want" - especially since new outbreaks might surge back until there is a vaccine.

Last month, the commission unveiled a set of guidelines adopted by member states on the use of contact-tracing mobile applications in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament agreed a resolution adopted last month (17 April) that "the data [from these applications] should not be stored in centralised databases, which are always at risk and which could jeopardise the large-scale adoption of these applications".

However, there is still no consensus among members states if these applications should be based on a decentralised solution that keeps data on the user's device - or if such data should be sent to a centralised database run by, for example, public health authorities.

Germany's U-turn

The lack of coordination across member states could trigger problems when crossing borders and technical challenges, such as interoperability between different apps.

Yet, the decentralised approach of coronavirus contact-tracing apps is starting to gain ground in Europe, as it enables higher data protection and cybersecurity safeguards, according to the experts.

"We are trying to have a consensus with member states towards the decentralised approach," Vestager told MEPs.

France, the United Kingdom and until recently Germany, were defending the use of a centralised approach, under the banner of "national sovereignty".

But the German government on Sunday changed course on its Covid-19 tracing application project, backing a more decentralised approach.

Belgium abandoned its tracing-contact application project last week, insisting that traditional contact-tracing would be more effective.

Meanwhile, Google and Apple have also teamed up to develop a decentralised framework to allow developers to build Covid-19 tracing apps.

Vestager recognised in an interview with the New Yorker that "the giants will have to be involved because the operating system's basically their domain" - despite their track record for unfair competition.

Additionally, Vestager said that the EU must invest in strategic digital infrastructure as part of its coronavirus recovery plan, including 5G, AI, supercomputing, cybersecurity, and blockchain.

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.

Opinion

The Dutch tracing app 'soap opera' - lessons for Europe

The app would need to be paired with more than 100,000 daily tests in order to have effect. And far more than 60 percent of the population will need to use the app in order for it to be effective.

New warning on virus apps' digital privacy safeguards

Authorities have already released or plan to roll out contact-tracing apps across the EU. However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought into focus the risks of these surveillance technologies - and their potential negative impact on human rights.

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