European countries are taking at least three different approaches to coronavirus contact tracing apps. Governments, health authorities, the EU, privacy campaigners and tech giants are all involved. Yet, three months after the first case in Europe, there’s no app ready to download.
The idea sounds simple: if you have coronavirus symptoms, technology can track back and alert anyone with whom you’ve been in contact in recent weeks so that they can self-isolate.
Avoiding a second wave
As people are gradually released from lockdown, contact tracing becomes vital.
Or as one senior EU official put it, technology can identify and contain potential “flare-ups”, and thereby avoid a full scale “second wave” of the virus.
More than 120,000 people have died in Europe from coronavirus, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Due to under-reporting in a number of countries, the real figure could be considerably higher.
Coronavirus can only be spread by contact. That means effective isolation can break the transmission chain. New Zealand appears to be a successful example of that.
In theory then, by using real-time data, we could stop the virus in its tracks. It is our best hope – pretty much all we’ve got – until a vaccine become available.
And yet, European countries appear woefully unprepared. A mobile phone app was up and running in China back in February. In Europe, countries are still deciding how to make it work.
Of course there are privacy concerns. Campaigners fear China will use the power of the app, not only against the virus, but to keep ever closer surveillance on its population.
The EU has strict data protection laws (known as GDPR). And the European Commission has warned coronavirus app developers trust is key, because contact tracing apps will only be effective if they are downloaded by millions of people.
“The development of such apps and their take up by citizens can have a significant impact on the treatment of the virus and can play an important role in the strategy to lift containment measures, complementing other measures like increased testing capacities. It is important, however, to ensure that EU citizens can fully trust such innovative digital solutions and can embrace them without fear.”
European Commission, 16 April 2020
The European Commission has resisted calls to build one EU-wide app. European countries are now headed in three different directions.
Some countries have decided to go low tech and not have an app at all. Belgium decided this week to join this camp.
“An app isn’t necessary when there is manual contact tracing”, Belgium’s minister in charge of its ‘corona taskforce’, Philippe De Backer, told VRT Nieuws.
The state is in the process of training up 2,000 people who will do the tracking the old fashioned way. Belgium has a population of 11 million people.
Ireland already has its contact tracers ready, but is also building an app, RTE reports.
EU sources say real-time information is crucial because it means health authorities can react quickly. Speed will surely be limited in countries which do not use technology.
Of those countries pressing ahead with an app, there is the question over how, or rather where, to maintain the data.
An international group of academics, including Oxford University, has been working on a concept with a centralised server. Users will be anonymised through a system of encryption, but there are some concerns that, if combined with other data, such as CCTV, individuals could, in theory, be singled out.
According to the Guardian, a recent UK government memo discusses whether ministers might at some later stage agree to data “de-anonymisation”, meaning individuals could be identified. Although noting this would be controversial.
And there’s another problem. Almost all mobile phones in Europe run on either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The two tech giants have warned phones might need to be constantly in ‘unlock’ mode for the centralised app to work properly, which could in itself be impractical, and a data risk.
The European Parliament said in a resolution earlier this month, “centralised databases…are prone to potential risk of abuse and loss of trust.”
However, the UK is pressing ahead and believes privacy concerns can be address. The head of NHS X, the digital department for NHS England, says “the data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research.”
“The app automates the laborious process of contact tracing – with the goal of reducing transmission of the virus by alerting people who may have been exposed so they can take action to protect themselves”
NHS X, 24 April 2020
The UK is testing the NHS app on an air base in North Yorkshire, with a roll-out to the population, potentially, within weeks, according to the Health Secretary.
The international consortium behind the project, “Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing”, has tried to be transparent about its app, publishing details on how data will be protected.
But an open letter, signed by hundreds of academics from around the world, warns “mission creep” could “result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”
Australia’s app, launched yesterday, was downloaded by more than a million users within hours. Data will be held on Amazon servers located in Australia and only accessible by health officials, the government said.
A rival system called “Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing”, otherwise known by the snappy acronym, “DP-3T” seems to be gaining ground.
In plain English, data is saved by the app on the user’s phone and not uploaded to a central server.
Germany has now pulled out of plans for a centralised system, and now backs this ‘decentralised’ approach.
It joins Switzerland, Austria and Estonia who have already been working on a localised system in co-ordination with Google and Apple.
Many European countries are starting the long process of ending lockdown.
Austria, for example, has already started to open up. Hair salons will reopen on Friday. Restaurants could be serving again from mid-May.
“Starting May 15th, gastronomic establishments are permitted to open until 11 pm. No more than 4 adults and their respective children may sit around one table. A minimum distance of 1 metre has to be kept to people on neighbouring tables.”
Austrian government, 28 April 2020
The DP-3T app is due to launch on 11 May. There will be no time for glitches.