BERLIN — European researchers think they have found a way to use mobile phones to contain the spread of coronavirus — and help people avoid infection — without sacrificing the regions high standards on privacy.
Eight countries have taken part in the project that will, on Wednesday, release the code for an app that analyzes Bluetooth signals between mobile phones to detect users who are close enough to infect each other, members of the group of about 130 academics, activists and technologists told POLITICO.
That data will be temporarily stored on the phones. If users later test positive for the virus, the app alerts anyone who has been around them in preceding days.
Unlike more invasive surveillance technology being used to track infections in parts of the world with lower standards of data privacy, the new European software embeds safeguards to encrypt data and anonymize personal information, according some of the organizations involved, which include the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne.
This makes it safe from abuse by third parties, including governments, and ensures data protection standards wont suffer irreparable damage as Europe tackles the pandemic.
“I think Europe is a very good starting place for this because we have this long tradition of privacy,” Chris Boo, CEO of artificial intelligence company Arago
“People have fought very hard to get where we are,” said Chris Boos, the CEO of Berlin-based artificial intelligence company Arago who is part of the projects leadership team and also advises Angela Merkels chancellery on digital policy. “And we shouldnt just throw our civilization out of the window.”
Germany will be among the first countries to launch an app based on the code. That hasnt been officially confirmed, but Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute which is coordinating Berlins response to the pandemic, has hinted that his institute has teamed up with others to work on such a voluntary app. He told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday that, ideally, the entire German population would sign up to it.
Other countries in Europe could soon follow suit. The aim of releasing the code, Boos said, is to facilitate the launch of national apps across the region that can communicate with each other to pick up Bluetooth phone signals and help avoid infections.
Current members of the initiative, which is financed through donations, include organizations from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, but the initiative remains open for new countries to join, including from outside the Continent, he added.
“I think Europe is a very good starting place for this because we have this long tradition of privacy,” Boos said. “But of course, were opening this up to other places, as well — and we already received the first requests from outside Europe when werent even out yet.”
Help Europe bounce back
The release of the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) toolkit responds to pressure on political leaders to find ways to revive locked-down Europes economy without prompting a spike in new COVID-19 cases, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
To do that, epidemiologists need better data on where infections take place so that those who might have contracted the pathogen can isolate themselves.
So far, countries like Germany have mostly tracked infections by interviewing those who are infected. But that workflow is lengthy and can be prone to errors, with patients often unable to remember everyone they crossed paths with in the preceding two weeks, the incubation period of COVID-19.
At the same time, patients tend to carry electronic devices with them that can track their whereabouts, prompting countries around the world to tap into that information to better identify new infections.
China, where the virus originated, has mobilized a vast array of mass surveillance tools, such as a mandatory app that scores individuals based on their contagion risk and shares the information with authorities.
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