Germany leads European push to develop coronavirus contact-tracker app

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Patrolling police officers use a tannoy and screens mounted on a police van to address people gathering in Gleisdreieck park Berlin on 28 March. (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty)

European tech and science institutes are teaming up to develop an app that can alert people if they are close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, via Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ between smartphones.

Germany’s Heinrich Hertz applied research institute told Reuters on Monday 30 March that a platform, called the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) could be ready in the next few weeks. Researchers from eight countries are involved in the platform development, and hope that it could aid in tracking and containing the spread of coronavirus across EU borders, as well as nationally.

“The PEPP-PT platform others can build on includes an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital proximity tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when travelling between countries,” Hans-Christian Boos, founder of business automation company Arago and a digital adviser to the German government, told Reuters.

Boos told Der Spiegel that the app would “collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable characteristics of the end devices.”

Germany’s deputy government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer told the press in Berlin on Wednesday that it was important to break the chains of infection as quickly as possible and “digital solutions could be a huge support for health departments… but of course such an app must comply with the data protection regulations.”

Demmer said she could not comment on specific implementation and timings of the app, adding only that “the government welcomes this initiative.”

According to the most recent data from Johns Hopkins University, Germany now has 71,808 confirmed cases, and 775 deaths from COVID-19. Although the death toll has climbed in recent days, Germany’s mortality rate from the illness remains low compared with most other countries, at around 0.9%. This has been attributed to several factors, including widespread testing of even mild cases, and that the first wave of coronavirus cases were among younger, fitter citizens.

Ensuring the app complies with personal data protection laid out in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation rules is a significant challenge, and there have been concerns that governments may use the data for other purposes or beyond the duration of the coronavirus.

The British government is also gearing up to release a similar tracer app, that will also use Bluetooth signals to let people know if they are in close proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Sky News, which first reported on the details of the app on Tuesday, said that the plan would be to release it  just before or shortly after the UK lockdown is lifted. It reported that the app would be opt-in and that the National Health Service believes up to 50% of the population could decide to use it.

According to Sky News, the NHS will set up an ethics board to address privacy fears and concerns such an app could be harnessed as a means of social control.

Asian countries have already launched various virus-tracing apps. Singapore’s TraceTogether app is also based on Bluetooth signals to notify if infected people are nearby. South Korea also uses people’s smartphone location, credit card and CCTV to monitor the movement of people confirmed to have coronavirus.