How Europe is divided on contact tracking apps

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A businesswoman takes the Eurostar from London to Paris for a meeting. A cyclist in Geneva travels to the picturesque French village of Annecy. An Italian family goes to the Riviera for a vacation.

These once mundane trips have something in common as countries seek to return to normal after Covid-19: they are likely to be invisible to public health authorities despite the deployment of smartphone apps to track channels of infected people.

According to researchers and policy makers involved in the projects, the blame is the uncoordinated approach to contact tracing applications adopted by various countries and the lack of EU leadership on the issue.

What started in March as a modest but collaborative effort between academics and computer developers to create a single European protocol was ultimately derailed by different national interests, approaches to privacy, and finally the announcement at in mid-April Apple and Google, whose software powers almost all smartphones in the world would launch their own system.

“After all our efforts, it is a shame. . . If you had a system that worked everywhere, then maybe Europe could open the borders faster this summer, “said Aymeril Hoang, a technology expert who advised the French on their application.

Instead, the UK, France and Norway have so far opted for local technology to give their health authorities more data and control, while Germany, Italy, the Ireland, Austria and Switzerland supported the Apple-Google standard. Spain remains undecided.

It is always possible that a solution will be found, for example if the technology companies and the selected countries reconcile their differences or if everyone conforms to Apple and Google.

Brussels is pushing for consensus, but a meeting between ministers and telecommunications commissioners on Tuesday failed to resolve the schism.

The attempt to build a pan-European system began in early March, when scientists from institutes such as Inria in France and Fraunhofer in Germany began to discuss a more acceptable way to track the virus. for privacy-minded Europeans that invasive technology used in Asia.

They debated how much and what type of data to collect and how to secure it both against hackers and governments determined to monitor.

On April 1, the group went public and announced that a coalition of 130 scientists from eight countries would create a set of “standards, technologies and services” called pan-European confidentiality and proximity tracking (PEPP-PT). It would not collect location data, comply with strict European privacy laws and be interoperable across borders.

But tensions were already mounting behind the scenes on the functioning of applications, and especially on data, if necessary., they should be sent to central databases maintained by national health authorities.

In Germany, for example, researchers decided early on that the app should complement the efforts of officials to manually track outbreaks, but this would require a centralized approach in which data would be shared with epidemiologists. The French also wanted health authorities to have some control.

Others believe that only a decentralized structure is appropriate, where governments have little access to data, to minimize the risk of abuse. On April 3, this faction published its protocol entitled “Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP3T)”.

“Things went wrong fairly quickly. There was no consensus among the researchers, “said Marcel Salathé, a scientist at the Federal Polytechnic of Lausanne who was part of the PEPP-PT group and helped write DP3T.

The issue was raised when Apple and Google announced that they would launch a decentralized system similar to DP3T. “It was a dramatic turn of events,” said an official.

Suddenly, countries with centralized models had no idea whether their applications would work even with the application programming interface (API) from Apple and Google.

German and French teams dotted companies with questions in video calls and were told there would only be one API, which they feared would ruin their work. “It was a bit of a shock to our consortium,” said one person from the German project, adding that attempts to persuade Apple and Google to welcome them failed.

Soon, Austria and Switzerland announced that they would use Apple-Google. Then, in a shocking move, Germany decided to change too. Politicians, including Minister of Health Jens Spahn, did not want their application to be blocked if Google and Apple refused to support it, said people familiar with the matter. Italy was the next domino to fall.

Margrethe Vestager, a European commissioner, said she encouraged countries to use “decentralized storage” to ensure compatibility of applications. “More and more countries are adopting this approach.”

But France and the UK have persisted with their own apps, despite fears that they won’t work, after similar apps in Singapore and Australia suffered from incomplete tracking data and dead mobile batteries.

The weeks of debate on contact search applications

A picture of the UK contact tracking app

An image of the UK contact tracking application © PA

March 18

The UK is the first EU country to say that it is working on a contact finder.

March 20th

Singapore launches its voluntary TraceTogether application and publishes open source code.

March, 31st

An article from the University of Oxford argues that contact tracing applications should be used to control the epidemic and remove blockages.

April 1

The pan-European proximity tracking project preserving confidentiality (PEPP-PT) is unveiled. Its mission is to help create GDPR-compliant and interoperable contact tracking applications across the EU.

April 3

The first whitepaper for DP3T (Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing) suggests keeping all data on mobile phones.

April 6

The EU’s data protection watchdog calls for a single pan-European mobile app. Angela Merkel spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin, “The worst would be if we had done it. . . a collection of different tracking apps in Europe. “

April 10

Apple and Google say they are working on a platform for contact tracking apps, which will be released in mid-May.

April 16

The EU publishes its “toolbox” on how applications should be built and run. Norway publishes its application, a “centralized” system that allows the government to collect data.

APRIL 17

Split develops between PEPP-TP and DP3T. Marcel Salathé, Swiss researcher, leaves the PEPP-TP group. The European Parliament calls for applications to be decentralized.

April 18

French and German developers publish their “Robert” protocol online for a centralized application.

April 22

Austria and Switzerland declare that they will use the Apple / Google system.

APRIL 26

Germany announces that it will switch to the Apple / Google system.

May 4

The UK is launching a centralized trial contact tracking application on the Isle of Wight.

Salathé was surprised by the acrimony: “I would have hoped that once Apple and Google were released, all international compatibility efforts would have converged.”

“Instead, it has become a strange fight, with some people saying,” We are not going to let these tech giants push us. ” It was no longer about technology or doing the right thing, but about politics. “

A few weeks before deploying the applications, a breakthrough is still possible. The Franco-German team recently submitted another protocol to the tech giants, which aimed to alleviate privacy concerns, but was rejected.

France will pilot its application next week. The United Kingdom is currently testing but also covers its bets by developing in parallel another application based on the Google-Apple standard.

“We are not against Apple and Google, but we do not want to be forced into a certain technological approach based on their internal policies,” said Cédric O, French Minister for Digital Affairs. “States should be able to make their own choices on such a critical issue – it is a question of sovereignty. “

Additional reporting by Nic Fildes in London and Dan Dombey in Madrid

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