Scientists and researchers from more than 25 countries released an open letter on Monday urging governments not to abuse these technologies to spy on their people and warning of risks in a German-backed approach.
“We are concerned that some” solutions “to the crisis could, via mission slippage, lead to systems that would allow unprecedented surveillance of society as a whole,” said the letter, which gathered more than 300 signatures.
Tech experts are rushing to develop digital methods to fight COVID-19, a flu-like illness caused by the new coronavirus that has infected 2.4 million people worldwide and has been linked to 165,000 deaths.
Automating the assessment of people at risk and telling them to see a doctor, get tested or isolate themselves is seen by advocates as a way to speed up a task that usually involves phone calls and home visits .
Contact search apps are already in use in Asia, but copying their approach using location data would violate European privacy laws. Instead, Bluetooth chat between devices is seen as a better way to measure people-to-people contacts.
The apps should be optional and should be downloaded by at least 60% of the population to get the so-called “digital herd immunity” needed to suppress COVID-19, say researchers at the Big Data Institute at Oxford University.
Yet controversy over the best course of action could delay the deployment of applications to help governments, once they have mastered the pandemic, contain any further epidemics.
The divide opened on a German-led initiative called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT www.pepp-pt.org), which has been criticized for being too centralized and therefore prone to creep government missions.
Critics support a decentralized contact tracking protocol called DP-3T here.pdf, launched by Swiss researchers, which is aligned with a technological alliance between Apple and Google Alphabet.
The details are very technical, but revolve around the question of whether sensitive data would be kept securely on devices or stored on a central server in a way that could allow a bad actor to reconstruct the “social graph” of a person – a record of where and when they meet other people.
“Solutions to reconstruct invasive population information should be rejected without further discussion,” said the scientists in their letter.
Signatories included Michael Backes, head of the German CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security, who withdrew from the PEPP-PT this weekend. Swiss researchers have also publicly disassociated themselves from PEPP-PT, citing concerns about centralization and confidentiality.
Critics have also questioned PEPP-PT’s claim that seven European countries – Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Switzerland – have rallied. Spain and Switzerland are now supporting rival DP-3T, government and research sources say.
PEPP-PT said it was committed to ensuring user privacy and data protection at all times.
PEPP-PT also affirmed its commitment to privacy in a 25-page document posted here at the end of last week on GitHub, a platform of software developers.
“If the system disclosed information about personal behavior, identities or even revealed who had been infected with Sars-CoV-19, users would rightly refuse to adopt the system,” said the document.
Germany plans to release a contact finder app in the next few weeks based on the PEPP-PT platform, government sources said last week. The head of the French digital research institute INRIA also supported the initiative.
The PEPP-PT platform is designed to support national applications that could “communicate” with each other across borders – a goal that could become more difficult to achieve if other European countries support a different standard.
“The debate diverts attention from what really matters: building an application that tracks the virus, not humans, and doing it as quickly as possible,” said Julian Teicke, CEO of Berlin-based insurance technology company WeFox, who is involved. in a German-based coronavirus application tracing project called Healthy Together.
Report by Douglas Busvine. Editng by Jane Merriman