European Commission says COVID-19 contact-tracing apps should respect EU privacy rules

The European Commission stated that mobile applications being developed for contact tracing in response to the coronavirus pandemic should comply with EU data protection and privacy rules. Thierry Breton, EU commissioner for internal market and services, said "contact-tracing apps to limit the spread of coronavirus can be useful…[but] strong privacy safeguards are a pre-requisite for the uptake of these apps, and therefore their usefulness."

According to the Commission, "location data is not necessary nor recommended for the purpose of contact-tracing apps, as their goal is not to follow the movements of individuals or to enforce prescriptions." An analysis by law firm Linklaters found that 28 countries have so far launched contact-tracing apps, including 11 in Europe, while another 11 are developing apps based on global positioning system (GPS) or Bluetooth data.

The Commission is calling on EU member states to build an interoperable system of apps that use short-range radio waves to assess users' proximity to one another, instead of tracking their phones' physical locations, such as with the GPS. It noted that the apps should exploit the latest privacy-enhancing solutions, pointing to Bluetooth proximity technology as an example, and should be based on anonymised data so as not to reveal the identity of people infected. Aside from complying with EU data protection and privacy rules, the Commission said the apps should also be approved by public health authorities, be installed voluntarily and then dismantled once they are no longer needed.  

Meanwhile, public health authorities will assess the effectiveness of the apps by April 30 and report on their actions by the end of May, while the Commission said it will publish periodic reports starting in June and throughout the pandemic, "recommending action or the phasing out of measures that seem no longer necessary."

The news follows Apple and Google recently announcing a joint effort to help public health authorities and others in the coming months develop apps for such Bluetooth-based contact tracing, noting that "privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort." However, one US lawmaker said Apple and Google will have to convince the public that the coronavirus contact-tracing apps they are collaborating on will not lead to privacy breaches.

In March, Oxford University published findings in the journal Science on controlling coronavirus transmission using a mobile app to trace close proximity contacts. Researchers found that contact-tracing apps can work if about 60% of the population uses the technology, although senior author Christophe Fraser said "even with lower numbers of app users, we still estimate a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths." 

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