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8th Aug 2020

Coronavirus

New warning on virus apps' digital privacy safeguards

  • Hungary has suspended various rights under the EU’s data protection rules, due to the coronavirus outbreak (Photo: Thought Catalog)

National authorities have already released or plan to roll out contact-tracing apps across the EU, with the idea that these technologies make it easier and quicker for health authorities to alert or find those potentially exposed to the coronavirus.

However, the human rights group Amnesty International warned on Monday (11 May) that the use of surveillance technologies to combat Covid-19 is, in many cases, not compatible with international human rights standards and could even lead to a more intrusive digital surveillance state.

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"Given that this level of digital tracing for public health is so novel, necessity and efficiency need to be proved," said Claudio Guarneri from Amnesty Tech, part of Amnesty International, adding contact-tracing apps could pose a risk for privacy rights, be discriminatory and exacerbate social inequality.

This potential backlash could encourage the upcoming German EU's council presidency in the second half of the year to address the lack of human right safeguards across member states when applying tracing apps or any upcoming technologies, as well as when exporting surveillance technologies, Lena Rohrbach from Amnesty International Germany told this website.

Meanwhile, MEPs on the European Parliament's committee on civil liberties warned last week that "whenever personal data is processed in the context of fighting Covid-19, data protection rules are indispensable".

Some member states have changed - either slightly or significantly - their data protection rules to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hungary's example

Earlier this month, the Hungarian government suspended certain rights under the EU's data protection rules until the end of the state of emergency - which has no deadline in Hungary.

As a result, NGO Access Now, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Civil Liberties Union for Europe on Monday all called on the EU's data protection watchdog to investigate the compatibility of a Hungarian government decree-law and the EU data protection rules.

The Hungarian decree limits the rights under Articles 15 to 22 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) linked to the processing of data conducted by both public and private entities for the fight against the Covid-19.

These include the right to access personal data, the right to not be subjected to profiling or the right to be forgotten.

Additionally, the new rules establish time limits for the exercise of remedy rights, including the right to lodge a complaint and the right to an effective judicial remedy - which are guaranteed by Articles 77 to 79 of the GDPR.

"The decision by the Hungarian government to limit the application of data subjects' rights is disproportionate, unjustified, and potentially harmful to the public's response to fight the virus," the three civil society organisations warned in a letter.

The head of the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, said last week that data protection should not become a problem to enabling digital solutions for a public health crisis.

"We have the moral responsibility to use the tools that we have on our hands to fight the pandemic, but we have also the responsibility to minimise the impact of these technologies on our fundamental rights," Wiewiórowski said.

Vestager pushes tracing apps as key for summer holidays

The commissioner for the digital portfolio, Margrethe Vestager, warned that "without the technology, it will be very difficult to open [society] to the degree that we all want" - since new outbreaks might surge back until there is a vaccine.

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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