BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called on Monday for a pan-European mobile app to track the spread of the new coronavirus instead of the current hodge-podge of apps used in various EU countries which could breach people’s privacy rights.
Faced with thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, governments across Europe have rolled out or plan to launch phone-tracking apps to trace people who came into contact with those infected and to monitor people under quarantine.
The measures have triggered criticism from some data privacy activists who worry that they may become permanent once the coronavirus crisis is over, while others doubt they will be effective unless most people agree to use them.
The EDPS said the use of temporary broadcast identifiers and bluetooth technology for contact tracing protected both privacy and personal data, but voiced concerns about the variety of apps sprouting up.
“Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a pan-European model COVID-19 mobile application, coordinated at EU level,” Wojciech Wiewiorowski, the head of the EU privacy watchdog, said in a statement.
“Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organization should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start,” he said.
With restrictions on social contacts and free movement showing first successes in “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic, some governments are looking to ease lockdowns and shift to a policy of containing any renewed COVID-19 outbreaks.
They hope that smartphone technology will help them speed up the task of tracing people who are at risk of infection after coming into contact with someone who tests positive - until now a task mainly done with a pen, paper and a telephone.
Germany threw its weight behind a proposed technology platform, unveiled last week, that would make it possible to roll out apps that can help trace the path of infection across borders while preserving privacy.
The initiative, called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), brings together more than 130 researchers from eight countries and broadly follows the approach taken by Singapore’s TraceTogether app.
“The worst thing would be if we had... a collection of different tracking apps in Europe,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told a news conference in Berlin.
PEPP-PT is expected to launch its platform this week with a German coronavirus contact tracing app - backed by the Robert Koch Institute that is coordinating the national coronavirus response - to follow.
Austria’s Red Cross has already launched a Stop Corona app that makes use of Bluetooth connections between smartphones and has been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people.
Ireland and Poland have announced similar national initiatives, adding to the impression that EU-wide coordination is lacking.
Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin; Editing by Mark Potter and Gareth Jones