COVID19, Vulcan Insight

The Role of Tracking Apps in the fight against Covid-19

30 April 2020

The role of technology in tracing the spread of coronavirus continues to expand, with countries across the globe turning to tracking applications for mobile devices to conduct contact tracing.

These applications are viewed as a key tool in monitoring the spread of the virus and have already been launched in countries such as Australia, South Korea, India and Iran. Development of similar applications is occurring across Europe with France, Germany, Italy, the UK and Ireland all in the process of development. The aim of such applications, which would be used only on a voluntary basis, is to easily trace contacts, while fully respecting privacy and the relevant provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, thus preventing the spread of a new wave of virus infection. However, different approaches to the storage of the information gathered by the application are being taken.

The health authorities in the UK and France have opted for a centralised system, where data collected by the devices’ Bluetooth connection will be sent to a centralised server and contact matches will be carried out from there. Epidemiologists within the NHS cite the ease of auditing and adapting this system as the key advantage of this approach. Germany’s proposed tracking application had been in line with the UK approach, but its government announced on Sunday that it had switched tack to a “strongly decentralised approach” after receiving criticism over the central database. This leaves France as one of the only other vocal advocates of a centralised model.

Similar to Germany, Ireland has taken a decentralised approach to data collection within  the application whereby all contact matching is carried out  directly on the device. The app downloads a list of those who have confirmed Covid-19 infections and alerts the user if a match is found. This list would contain anonymised ID data relating to the devices of those with infections who have been in contact with someone using the app, but not their personal information. This decentralised approach has also been supported by tech giants Google and Apple who are in the process of developing a project to support this initiative with details expected to be released in the coming days.

While many argue that the centralised approach could infringe on the fundamental right to privacy, the European Commission back both centralised and decentralised models, as they recognise that the differences are not “completely clear”. “Deciding on models that are not clear is not something we should do on policymaking,” said the Deputy Director of the commission’s Directorate-general for Communications Networks and Technology, Khalil Rouhana, in a video-conference last week. Adding to this, The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) adopted guidelines on the 21ST of April pertaining to the use of location data and contracting tracing tools. These guidelines outlined that a centralized or decentralized approach are viable options provided that adequate security measures are in place. 

In general, coordination among Member States on the use and function of these applications is vital due to the role these applications could play in the easing or abolishing of internal border checks and the potential lifting of entry restrictions on the external Union borders. Automated data collection and processing could be a key component in the fight against Covid-19 but countries must ensure that the fundamental rights of individuals are not eroded in the process.