Digital mapping of coronavirus contacts will have key role in lifting Europe’s lockdown, says Commission
The European Commission has set out a plan for co-ordinating the lifting of regional coronavirus restrictions that includes a role for digital tools — in what the EU executive couches as “a robust system of reporting and contact tracing”. However it has reiterated that such tools must “fully respect data privacy”.
Last week the Commission made a similar call for a common approach to data and apps for fighting the coronavirus, emphasizing the need for technical measures to be taken to ensure that citizens’ rights and freedoms aren’t torched in the scramble for a tech fix.
Today’s toolbox of measures and principles is the next step in its push to coordinate a pan-EU response.
“Responsible planning on the ground, wisely balancing the interests of protection of public health with those of the functioning of our societies, needs a solid foundation. That’s why the Commission has drawn up a catalogue of guidelines, criteria and measures that provide a basis for thoughtful action,” said EC president Ursula von der Leyen, commenting on the full roadmap in a statement.
“The strength of Europe lies in its social and economic balance. Together we learn from each other and help our European Union out of this crisis,” she added.
Harmonized data gathering and sharing by public health authorities — “on the spread of the virus, the characteristics of infected and recovered persons and their potential direct contacts” — is another key plank of the plan for lifting coronavirus restrictions on citizens within the 27 Member State bloc.
While ‘anonymized and aggregated’ data from commercial sources — such as telcos and social media platforms — is seen as a potential aid to pandemic modelling and forecasting efforts, per the plan.
“Social media and mobile network operators can offer a wealth of data on mobility, social interactions, as well as voluntary reports of mild disease cases (e.g. via participatory surveillance) and/or indirect early signals of disease spread (e.g. searches/posts on unusual symptoms),” it writes. “Such data, if pooled and used in anonymised, aggregated format in compliance with EU data protection and privacy rules, could contribute to improve the quality of modelling and forecasting for the pandemic at EU level.”
The Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over fuzzy metadata for coronavirus modelling which it wants done by the EU’s Joint Research Centre. It wrote to 19 mobile operators last week to formalize its request, per Euractiv, which reported yesterday that its aim is to have the data exchange system operational ‘as soon as possible’ — with the hope being it will cover all the EU’s member states.
Other measures included in the wider roadmap are the need for states to expand their coronavirus testing capacity and harmonize tesing methodologies — with the Commission today issuing guidelines to support the development of “safe and reliable testing”.
Steps to support the reopening of internal and external EU borders is another area of focus, with the executive generally urging a gradual and phased lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
On contacts tracing apps specifically, the Commission writes:
“Mobile applications that warn citizens of an increased risk due to contact with a person tested positive for COVID-19 are particularly relevant in the phase of lifting containment measures, when the infection risk grows as more and more people get in contact with each other. As experienced by other countries dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, these applications can help interrupt infection chains and reduce the risk of further virus transmission. They should thus be an important element in the strategies put in place by Member States, complementing other measures like increased testing capacities.
“The use of such mobile applications should be voluntary for individuals, based on users’ consent and fully respecting European privacy and personal data protection rules. When using tracing apps, users should remain in control of their data. National health authorities should be involved in the design of the system. Tracing close proximity between mobile devices should be allowed only on an anonymous and aggregated basis, without any tracking of citizens, and names of possibly infected persons should not be disclosed to other users. Mobile tracing and warning applications should be subject to demanding transparency requirements, be deactivated as soon as the COVID-19 crisis is over and any remaining data erased.”
“Confidence in these applications and their respect of privacy and data protection are paramount to their success and effectiveness,” it adds.
Earlier this week Apple and Google announced a collaboration around coronavirus contracts tracing — throwing their weight behind a privacy-sensitive decentralized approach to proximity tracking that would see ephemeral IDs processed locally on devices, rather than being continually uploaded and held on a central server.
A similar decentralized infrastructure for Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contacts tracing had already been suggested by a European coalition of privacy and security experts, as we reported last week.
While a separate coalition of European technologists and researchers has been pushing a standardization effort for COVID-19 contacts tracing that they’ve said will support either centralized or decentralized approaches — in the hopes of garnering the broadest possible international backing.
For its part the Commission has urged the use of technologies such as decentralization for COVID-19 contacts tracing to ensure tools align with core EU principles for handling personal data and safeguarding individual privacy, such as data minimization.
In a video address last week, Europe’s lead privacy regulator, the EDPS, intervened to call for a “panEuropean model ‘COVID-19 mobile application’, coordinated at EU level” — in light of varied tech efforts by Member States which involve the processing of personal data for a claimed public health purpose.
“The use of temporary broadcast identifiers and bluetooth technology for contact tracing seems to be a useful path to achieve privacy and personal data protection effectively,” said Wojciech Wiewiórowski on Monday week. “Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a panEuropean model “COVID-19 mobile application”, coordinated at EU level. Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start.”
The Commission has not gone so far in today’s plan — calling instead for Member States to ensure their own efforts align with the EU’s existing data protection framework.
Though its roadmap is also heavy on talk of the need for “coordination between Member States, to avoid negative effects” — dubbing it “a matter of common European interest”. But, for now, the Commission has issued a list of recommendations; it’s up to Member States to choose to fall in behind them or not.
With the caveat that EU regulators are watching very carefully how states’ handle citizens’ data.
“Legality, transparency and proportionality are essential for me,” warned Wiewiórowski, ending last week’s intervention on the EU digital response to the coronavirus with a call for “digital solidarity, which should make data working for all people in Europe and especially for the most vulnerable” — and a cry against “the now tarnished and discredited business models of constant surveillance and targeting that have so damaged trust in the digital society”.