Greetings from Brussels!
With all the heated debate across Europe on the use of mobile technology to combat COVID-19, I was interested to read that Germany, in the race to get ahead of the epidemic, is set to launch a smartphone app within weeks to help trace infections.
Digital surveillance is a sensitive topic in Germany, no more so than in former East Germany where there is still the raw memory for many of the state surveillance that was prevalent at the time. That aside, there has been a collective consensus across the political divide to reinforce existing measures to combat the spread of the virus and support containment. Spearheaded by Health Minister Jens Spahn, the call for the use of smartphone technology has even won support from the Greens, traditionally strong advocates of data privacy.
German Federal Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber also weighed in supporting the use of location and contact data being shared on a voluntary basis, describing it as “incredibly useful,” adding, “If you take a few protective measures into account, there will be a great willingness to share, protect yourself, and protect others."
What is the word on this new smartphone application? Well, for context, this is a new Europe-wide approach aimed at dispelling the fears of extensive monitoring by "tracking apps." In the past few weeks, a team of about 130 employees from 17 institutes, organizations and companies from across Europe has been developing an alternative solution to the extensive use of tracking technology deployed in Asia. The Pepp-PT Project application is designed to work in a different way than other similar technologies. In short, the plan is for users to voluntarily download the app to their mobile devices, which subsequently triggers an alarm if the user has been in near proximity to a person who has tested positive for coronavirus and also uses the app.
No additional data is shared. The application does not share personal data on who is infected and when or where exactly the contact took place. In that regard, the Pepp-PT is described as “data-efficient” and is likened to a kind of "digital ruler" that warns when the distance to a person at risk has been exceeded. The principle is known as "proximity tracing." No location data, profiles, contact information or identifiable features of mobile devices is collected. The app operates over Bluetooth technology and generates temporary IDs so users cannot be identified. If another system user is in "close proximity," there is an exchange of ID that is encrypted locally and saved to the device. If a user becomes diagnosed with coronavirus, medical authorities request the user to upload the list of system contact IDs to a central server so those particular users can be informed that they were in close contact with an infected person. For the system to work, arguably you need a critical mass of users, experts say anywhere between 30% and 60% to prove helpful.
On the whole, it appears to be an elegant and highly non-intrusive design solution to help interrupt infectious chains, going the extra mile to protect individual privacy. Its interoperability across borders means that tracing local infection chains even if a chain spans participating countries is possible. Its eventual introduction into Germany and its adoption rates — once some form of normal life resumes within the population — will be monitored by other countries, as well, as we look for urgent solutions to support our existing responses to stem the spread of this pandemic.
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