EU data watchdog pitches pan-European COVID-19 app  

The EU should establish its own “pan-European COVID-19 mobile application” due to divergences in current app developments across the bloc, the EU’s data watchdog has suggested.

The comments, delivered by the European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski via video message on Monday (6 April), come after a series of data protection concerns were raised with regards to the use of various coronavirus tracking apps across the Europe.

“The EDPS is aware that a number of EU Member States have or are in the process of developing mobile applications that use different approaches to protect public health, involving the processing of personal data in different ways,” Wiewiórowski said.

“Given all these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a pan-European model ‘COVID-19 mobile application’, coordinated at EU level.”

Wiewiórowski added that in the creation of the application, the EU should coordinate with the World Health organisation, to ensure “data protection by design globally.”

The EDPS added that the recent proliferation in temporary broadcast identifiers and bluetooth technologies used in mobile contact tracing apps, could be a “useful path to achieve privacy and personal data protection.”

Apps taking advantage of ‘bluetooth handshakes’ registered between two smartphone users when coming into close proximity with one another have received publicity recently following the establishment of a European project dubbed Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT).

The technology borrows from various initiatives worldwide, including Singapore’s TraceTogether application, which has influenced other national projects in the West seeking to clamp down on the spread of the virus.

The software functions by broadcasting over a short distance a “temporarily valid, authenticated and anonymous identifier (ID) that cannot be connected to a user,” the company says.

Despite this claim, some in the privacy community have criticised the company’s promises of anonymity, with Austrian activist Max Schrems calling such claims “false.”

In terms of registering bluetooth signals, there has also been similar publicly-backed initiatives in Ireland and the UK, and some movement in the charity sector with Austria’s Red Cross developing a similar app, and in the private sector with Germany’s GeoHealthApp.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s Internal Market Chief Thierry Breton said last week that the executive is monitoring the use of mobile applications in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic to make sure that the bloc’s “values and rules” are not being infringed, after a question from German MEP Anna Cavazzini.

“Europe is a specific continent where we have to be careful that in this very situation, we maintain what is important to us, we maintain our values,” he said.

“We are investigating to see what is really happening,” Breton continued. “We will make sure that it doesn’t infringe with our rules, including our values.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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