EU human rights groups call for COVID-19 app transparency

New phone app Immuni, promoted by the Italian government and developed by Bending Spoon, for contact tracing COVID-19 cases among Italy's citizens, Rome, Italy, June 4th, 2020. [Shutterstock]

A cross-section of EU human rights groups have pressed national authorities to provide more information on how citizens’ data will be stored and processed as part of the rollout of coronavirus contact tracing applications across the bloc.

As part of a coordinated campaign, nine European members of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe are filing freedom of information requests to national authorities on Monday (8 June), in a bid to ensure that governments are abiding by EU data protection legislation.

The organisations coming from Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, say they want to ensure that governments are not processing more personal data than what is necessary in the bloc’s contact tracing efforts, and that member states are also minimising the risk of data leakage and privacy violations.

“While the aim of saving lives and livelihoods is without doubts salutary, the path of mass surveillance is quite possibly unnecessary and surely dangerous to take,” Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer at Liberties, said in a statement.

“Human rights organisations need to make sure that European governments take their responsibility to prepare impact assessments seriously and no European government uses the pandemic as a pretext for normalising the expanded use of invasive digital surveillance technologies.”

Moreover, in an effort to implore national authorities to comply with the freedom of information requests, members involved in the initiative also threaten to ‘start litigation against those member states that fail to provide all public data related to the applications, or where data protection regulations are breached.’

Despite the harsh tone, however, Liberties did in fact say that they understood how such a campaign could drain the resources of national authorities at a time when many governmental departments are operating at a minimal level.

“We are aware that answering FOI requests requires resources. For this reason, Liberties will submit only FOI requests of high relevance,” Eva Simon, senior advocacy officer at Liberties told EURACTIV.

“It is appreciated that in trying to protect employees from the virus, certain ministries and governmental agencies maintain minimal operation only, however, those departments that are working on averting the problems caused by the pandemic need to have increased capacities.

Recovery Apps

As part of a series of measures recently announced by the European Commission under its mid-May transport and tourism package, designed to assist in easing Europe’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, the executive stated that the “largest possible participation” of EU citizens is required in order for coronavirus contact tracing applications to work effectively.

Meanwhile, the executive has also touted interoperability between different national contact tracing technologies as ‘essential’ in helping to open up Europe’s borders after the pandemic.

“All member states and the Commission consider that interoperability between these apps and between backend systems is essential for these tools to enable the tracing of cross-border infection chains,” the EU guidelines say.

“This is particularly important for cross-border workers and neighbouring countries. Ultimately, this effort will support the gradual lifting of border controls within the EU and the restoration of freedom of movement.”

In this vein, EU telecoms ministers agreed at a May videoconference “that the contact tracing apps would have high importance for the gradual relaxation of various national measures, including opening of borders.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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