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Digital contact tracing: Call for a stronger EU-wide approach

Written by Mihalis Kritikos,

There is no trade-off between privacy and health in the context of contact tracing applications as, without citizens’ trust, no technology can deliver the expected outcomes. That was the main conclusion reached in the frame of the online high-level roundtable organised by the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on 7 July 2020. The last STOA event before the summer break brought together technology experts, privacy advocates, digital rights activists and representatives of the European Commission, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT Digital) in a debate on ensuring the effective deployment of this technology without compromising our values. As several EU Member States have recently deployed tracing apps designed to prevent a second wave of infections, questions arise about the efficiency, accuracy and privacy-friendly character of this technology.

The event was a timely occasion to discuss whether digital contact tracing has the potential to become a critical component of our efforts to control the spread of Covid‑19. It was also an opportunity to devise informed strategies to exit lockdown restrictions safely, coming only a few days after Member States, with the support of the Commission, agreed on a set of technical specifications to ensure safe exchange of information between national contact tracing apps based on a decentralised architecture.

There was a consensus among the panellists that, although hundreds of coronavirus contact tracing mobile applications are under development worldwide and are beginning to be deployed in Europe, there is currently limited evidence to evaluate their effectiveness and impact. Additionally, their implementation raises privacy and stigmatisation concerns and questions about their accessibility, inclusivity, accuracy and security that need to be addressed in a proactive and step-wise manner. This means putting the necessary safeguards and standards in place that would ensure that European citizens trust this technology. The panellists also agreed that digital contact tracing provides policy-makers with a unique opportunity to deploy a technology that could be socially beneficial and valuable in epidemiological terms, if designed in an inclusive way and implemented under specific legal and ethical conditions. Participants agreed that it is the first time that privacy is a recognised design feature of a technology gradually being deployed across Europe.

The event was opened by STOA Chair and moderator of the event, Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), who argued that contact tracing apps must respect users’ privacy, work across devices and operating systems, and add value to the epidemiological monitoring of the pandemic without creating risks of exclusion.

A presentation followed of the European Commission’s initiatives in the field of digital contact tracing by Marco Marsella, Head of the ‘eHealth, Well-being, and Ageing’ Unit in the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT) of the European Commission. Marsella highlighted that the Commission and the Member States cooperated on the technical and legal aspects of these apps from the very beginning, which was crucial for the shaping of an effective response and the development of a common EU toolbox.

Diego Ciulli, public policy manager at Google, explained the Exposure Notifications System that Google and Apple created jointly to fight the pandemic through contact tracing. He emphasised that technology is only one tool to fight Covid‑19 and these apps can only complement manual contact tracing by guaranteeing safety and privacy in order to earn citizens’ trust.

Professor Michael Backes, founding Director and CEO of the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security, emphasised that Germany’s decentralised Corona Warn App, already downloaded by more than 15 million Germans, will clearly not on its own provide a panacea for the pandemic. However, it can enable earlier identification of new infections, helping to isolate infected people before they become contagious themselves. He argued in favour of privacy-by-design, and the interoperable and voluntary nature of these apps as key to their uptake and success.

Christof Tchohl, Research Director at Research Institute/Red Cross Austria described the lessons learned in the deployment of Europe’s first contact tracing app. According to Tchohl, the Austrian Stopp Corona-App, launched in March 2020, faced a series of legal and technical challenges that led to its reprogramming to a more decentralised and privacy-friendly system.

Leonardo Cervera Navas, Director of the Office of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) advocated an interoperable, pan-European approach towards contact tracing, which should empower citizens in this pandemic crisis rather than stigmatise them. He further emphasised that data protection should be considered part of the solution as it can render the transparency and accountability necessary for trustworthiness.

Privacy and ease of use are crucial for the success of any contact tracing technology, according to Willem Jonker, CEO of EIT Digital. He presented the contact tracing system using physical tokens that EIT Digital is currently developing as an alternative technical option for virus tracing, and which is independent of apps and mobile platforms.

Following the experts’ presentations, Eva Kaili emphasised the need to enhance the interoperability and epidemiological value of these apps to help millions of Europeans travel more easily this summer by removing barriers and grounding safety protocols on solid data. She further argued for the need to talk about contact alerts and contact safety instead of contact tracing, as the latter may suggest tracking people’s movements and undermining the right of privacy. In her closing remarks, Petra De Sutter (Greens/European Free Alliance, Belgium), Member of the STOA Panel, thanked the participants and argued in favour of the need to render all contact tracing apps compatible at least within the EU. Finally, she urged for a stronger EU-wide approach in the design of the terms of deployment of this technology, as well as in the sharing and comparability of the data collected.

If you missed out this time, you can watch the webstream.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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