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Europe releases guidelines for building COVID-19 apps

The European Commission has unveiled guidelines for member states creating COVID-19 apps, with perhaps an attempt to prevent mission creep from private industry.

The document, which is available here, suggests the national health authorities take the leadership position in developing the applications, while another recommendation is to store data on devices wherever possible. Minimising data analysis, external storage and the role of private organisations are ways and means to maintain privacy principles but also reduce the risk of data breaches.

“This is the first global crisis where we can deploy the full power of technology to offer efficient solutions and support the exit strategies from the pandemic,” said Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová.

“Trust of Europeans will be key to success of the tracing mobile apps. Respecting the EU data protection rules will help ensure that our privacy and fundamental rights will be upheld and that the European approach will be transparent and proportional.”

Although the guidelines are relatively simple, such a tick-box exercise is critical to ensure the largest possible adoption rates. The apps will assist individuals irrelevant as to how many people install, however for the contact tracing features to be the most effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19, downloads would have to meet critical mass. Oxford University researchers suggest this would be at least 60% of the population.

If any of the apps being discussed are to reach 60% penetration, privacy and security fears would have to be addressed, while legislation would have to be introduced to ensure such tracking activities do not become the new normality and data is not retained after the crisis.

In brief, the guidelines are as follows:

  • Downloading the app should be voluntary not compulsory
  • National health services should own the project and be responsible as the Data Controller
  • Data minimisation principles should be applied
  • GDPR principles of right to deletion should be adhered to
  • Data should be stored on user devices wherever possible
  • Consent should be applied to each element of the application not a catch-all opt-in at the beginning
  • Rules should be introduced for the deletion of collected raw data and the subsequent insight

There are of course multiple other nuances and elements included in the 14-page document, though should the above guidelines be adhered to and the role of private industry limited, there could be trust installed in the apps. Irrelevant to how elegant and sophisticated the apps are, the most important aspect is user adoption.

This is not the first time the world has faced a pandemic to this degree, but technology and insight are tools which we have never had at our disposal before. The contact tracing apps, to warn individuals of potential infection and educate on how to further prevent the spread, should be adopted by every nation. However, privacy and security concerns should not be ignored.

The technology and telecoms industry has a pretty poor record when it comes to privacy and security. Executives might point to policies and features to improve resilience, however these are almost always reactionary additions not proactive. Considering the sensitive nature of the data which is being discussed in relation to these apps, this is the time to be overly cautious in applying privacy and security principles.

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