Pan-European contact-tracing – a chance for more normality and freer movement


Most EU countries have worked out the kinks in their contact-tracing apps and now offer them as part of efforts to track coronavirus infection and break the chain of transmission. The next step is ensuring the apps can connect across borders.

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Contact-tracing apps, one of several tools to contain the pandemic.

Almost all European Union countries have completed the development of contact-tracing apps and are offering them to the public. By complementing the complex exercise of manual contact tracing, the apps promise to speed tracking of coronavirus infections and help break the chain of transmission, initially at the national level and increasingly now across borders.

If the systems work well, they might help ease the population out of lockdown. A simulation by a group of researchers at Oxford University found that tracing apps can be effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19, when accompanied by other measures, if at least 15 percent of the population participates.

And in a union created to guarantee freedom of movement across borders, the next step is to make these national apps interoperable. In September, the European Commission piloted an “interoperability gateway”. Following that initial testing of the gateway, it went live in mid-October. Six national apps currently participate in this transnational exposure logging: Germany's “Corona-Warn-App”, Ireland's “COVID tracker”, Italy's “Immuni”, Denmark’s “Smittestop”, Latvia’s “Apturi Covid” and Spain’s “Radar Covid”. More countries’ apps will be added by the end of the year.

As an example of how it works, imagine you are from Germany and want to visit your aunt in Italy for Christmas. Both you and your aunt use your respective country’s national tracing app. If you arrive at your aunt’s after being recently in contact with an infected person who enters their positive test into his or her app, you and your aunt would both receive a warning in your apps.

A crucial technical question looming over interoperability is how each app stores its data – centrally or decentralised. Google and Apple decided to support a decentralised model to reassure the public about the privacy of the data, because storing the information the apps receive from users in one central place raises risks of mass government surveillance, and creates unnecessary vulnerabilities.

Nearly all EU countries’ governments have developed decentralised apps that are potentially interoperable. France and Hungary, however, use a centralised app architecture. Those apps are currently not compatible in the cross-border system. Sweden, Romania and Bulgaria have no plans yet to launch an app.

The UK’s app, “NHS COVID-19”, is unlikely to become interoperable even though it uses a decentralised mode of data storage, because the ongoing Brexit negotiations have not yet produced an agreement on the exchange of health data.

Dos and Don’ts

The work on interoperability comes after many months of planning, technical work, and public discussions across the continent about the pros and cons of contact-tracing apps. The development of Germany’s “Corona-Warn-App”, launched in June, may become a model for future government IT projects using open-source software, transparent communication, and public-private cooperation. Its decentralised architecture ensures that smartphones can communicate the necessary data to other smartphones without personal information leaving the device. The system became the blueprint for the Belgian tracing app “Coronalert”, launched on Sept. 30.

The relatively high number of downloads of the German app – about 22 million in a country of 83 million people – is a sign of public confidence. Belgium, with a population of about 11.5 million, already has more than 1 million downloads for its app. In countries that opted for centralised systems, however, the numbers are much lower: about 4,2 million downloads for France’s population of 67 million, and about 100.000 downloads in Hungary, with a population of 9.8 million.

The UK has stumbled in its tech response to the pandemic. After legal challenges, delays, and leaks, the UK took a major U-turn and abandoned its centralised tracing app in favour of a model based on decentralised technology. In a country with about 67 million people, the new “NHS COVID-19” app has been downloaded at least 16.5 million times.

Privacy concerns eased

The concerns of civil society have been taken seriously in most cases throughout the EU. In Germany, a group of digital rights NGOs wrote an open letter in April protesting the initial centralised-data approach of the app and calling for decentralised data storage. The government soon shifted to a decentralised system. The Green Party and others in Germany also advocated strongly for legislation to secure certain protections related to the apps.

Globally, digital-rights NGOs stress that any data collection must be limited to the purpose of tracing Covid-19 infections. Data should not be used for other purposes such as law enforcement, national security, immigration control or commercial purposes. In Austria, where the first European tracing app “Stopp Corona” was launched in March, it had been reviewed independently by NGOs noyb, and SBA research.

Furthermore, the installation and use of the apps must be voluntary. Many EU states continue to wrestle with the question of whether to make contact-tracing apps mandatory, but such proposals often run into immediate public opposition and are quickly taken off the table again. The EU Commission and the European Parliament both argue for a voluntary approach.

Big tech to the rescue?

In the development process, Apple and Google were indispensable to ensuring these apps would have a chance at reaching enough smartphone users across the planet for proper functionality, since 99 percent of smartphones run on either on iOS or Android. The joint effort of those tech giants to tackle the pandemic by providing an API for contact tracing was gratifying, though it also exemplified their domination in the field despite their lack of democratic accountability to the public.

In the end, contact-tracing apps are just one of several tools to contain the pandemic, and we don’t know for certain yet how effective they will prove to be. While they are not a silver bullet, they can supplement the process of manual contact tracing. This alone makes it worth trying, especially considering the alternative: if health authorities can’t keep up with the virus, governments will have no choice but to again impose stricter measures like lockdowns. At the same time, tracing apps cannot replace ubiquitous, fast and accurate testing.

The bottom line: Do not rely on technology alone; keep your distance, wear a mask and for god’s sake wash your hands.