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Tech feud complicates EU search for coronavirus tracking app

Governments are betting on coronavirus tracking apps to help ease lockdown restrictions. Too bad the techies developing these tools have turned on one another.

At first glance, the spat seems charmingly geeky — developers who favor so-called decentralized design for the apps, with data stored on devices, disagree with other developers who back a centralized design where data gets stored on the cloud.

But for those involved, the choice is ultra-serious and has far-reaching consequences for privacy and Europes technological independence.

Its already prompted a series of defections from a high-profile German-led project, and comes at an inconvenient time for governments — just as they are agonizing over which apps to choose to help them out of their lockdowns.

At the center of the fight is the clunkily named Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) consortium, an alliance once of around 130 European computer scientists that launched last month with the aim of developing apps that adhere to the Continents strict privacy rules.

“Right now, PEPP-PT is not open enough, and it is not transparent enough” — Marcel Salathé, a researcher at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

But while PEPP-PT is gaining traction among national governments — the bodys leadership say eight countries are developing apps using its code, while 40 others have signed up — it is facing an exodus of members over what they say is a lack of transparency and a preference for a centralized app design.

A letter out Monday signed by over 300 scientists from 25 countries — including former PEPP-PT backers — argues that decentralized app designs do a better job of preserving privacy than centralized models.

“The statement … recommends that decentralised approaches be adopted. Interestingly, the PEPP-PT consortium, now largely composed of German research institutions, has been promoting an opposite, centralized approach,” said Kenneth Paterson, an ETH Zürich researcher who publicly withdrew support from PEPP-PT on Saturday in a statement accompanying the letter.

The letter also has the support of researchers across institutes and universities in Canada, the U.K., U.S. and other non-European countries.

Its the latest, arguably strongest push to adopt “decentralized apps” and steer clear of projects like the earlier PEPP-PT project — after a series of European researchers sounded the alarm in the past days.

“I am personally disassociating from PEPP-PT … I cant stand behind something I dont know what it stands for. Right now, PEPP-PT is not open enough, and it is not transparent enough,” said Marcel Salathé, a researcher at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in a tweet on Friday.

Instead, Salathé said he would be pouring his efforts into a DP-3T, a group that began under the auspices of the PEPP-PT, but has now largely detached itself from the umbrella organization.

Other defections swiftly followed, with researchers from ETH Zürich, CISPA, and KU Leuven withdrawing from PEPP-PT to focus on DP-3T over the weekend.

Many defections have focused on PEPP-PTs alleged lack of transparency — a claim backed up by a group of MEPs, who wrote to the organizations leadership on Friday to demand more clarity. By contrast, DP-3T has gained kudos for publishing its code.

Turning tide

The split underscores a rapid breakdown in trust.

PEPP-PT began life as Europes answer to surveillance-heavy technology used in countries like China to ease lockdown measures, and promised to unite the Continents techies. Together, they would come up with privacy-friendly ways to do “contact tracing” — a technique of gathering data on encounters and alerting those that have crossed paths with coronavirus-infected people.

But the project is now on life support as erstwhile members withdraw their backing.

“PEPP-PT is still trying to claim its some kind of umbrella organization, but its been captured by a single project,” DP-3T member and University College London researcher Michael Veale told POLITICO over the phone.

According to Veale, a mostly German group including the renowned Fraunhofer institute and tech entrepreneur Chris Boos are using PEPP-PT to push their more centralized approach to contact tracing at the expense of other models — including the “decentralized” one developed by DP-3T.

Boos, who is also part of PEPP-PTs leadership team, sought to play down reports of the rift in a call with reporters on Friday, saying that PEPP-PT still supports different models of contact tracing. “We still like the DP-3T protocol … Our approach is that countries have to be able to choose.”

The dispute now puts researchers head to head — especially in Germany, where most of PEPP-PTs members are headquartered.

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