The Fluid Society

European Corona App ?

All European countries are looking for a Corona App to contain the corona pandemic and better protect their citizens. Of course, the privacy experts immediately dived into this issue. After all, privacy must be guaranteed under all circumstances, or not? As long as the different countries approach this issue as a national problem, one thing is certain: it will be a major failure in most countries and it will take a lot of money and effort to achieve a likely questionable outcome.

The first problem is that the desire to guarantee privacy may clash with the goal that health institutions have in mind. The Municipal Health Services (MHS) want to use an App to determine who caused the contamination and where the contamination occurred. After all, if the location of the infection is clear, measures can be taken to clean up or isolate that source of infection and other people can be warned. And this requirement, of passing on to an agency who has infected and where, clashes with privacy requirements.

It is therefore a prerequisite that the MHS indicate exactly what they expect from an App and to what improvement that can lead compared to a situation without such an App. If it is necessary to report that location of the source of the infection to MHS, which is now done via an oral procedure, the people who will use this App should give permission for the violation of their privacy. Incidentally, that happens with the oral, old-fashioned method, too. An App that only communicates to a person that he or she has recently been in contact with an infected person, but does not indicate where and with whom, could be of little interest to the MHS.

If the purpose and degree of improvement to get corona under control by the App are clear, it is of course still important how many people must use that App and how accurately the App functions. Often a percentage of 60% is mentioned as a minimum to be effective. Since young people have and use more smartphones than older people, but the older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 contamination, you will want to be sure that this 60% is reached by the most vulnerable target group. Whether this will work on a voluntary basis is highly questionable.

The accuracy of the App is another issue. Of the various options, Bluetooth with decentralized storage on the phone is the most favourite for the time being. However, Bluetooth is often turned off for many phones and is also not very suitable for measuring distances between people. The measurement changes significantly depending on where you wear the smartphone and whether Bluetooth has to pass through the air or a wall, and so on. The measurement only concerns whether someone is nearby for a certain period of time, for example five minutes, while an intense but short contact (direct contact) is much more contagious, as well as touching an infected environment that no other person is involved in. It is therefore still necessary to search for the right technology. Furthermore, the help of Google and Apple is needed to enable a software update to allow a qualified App to encrypt and securely store the data or to use other options in the operating system. Fortunately, both companies have indicated that they will release the necessary update in mid-May.

However, there is yet another bump to take. It is extremely desirable that it should come to an international App or internationally compatible App. After all, hopefully in a few months people will be able to travel again. It is precisely in these cases that people want to be sure that an App provides them with an extra guarantee against COVID-19 infection abroad. And when many tourists or business people travel again, countries also want to know whether they will not get another wave of contamination.

The European Commission has therefore made a toolkit for European countries, with requirements that an App should meet (voluntary, compliance with MHS requirements, privacy-preserving and dismantling if the pandemic is over). The toolkit also states that cross-European cooperation is needed to make the App usable in all countries: “ In Europe, the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT)7consortium intends to support the development of national initiatives that pursue a fully privacy-preserving approach by providing ready-to-use, well-tested, and validated modules and tools. It also aims to enable tracing of infection chains across national borders. Initiatives under the umbrella of PEPP-PT, aim at an open protocol for COVID-19 proximity tracing using Bluetooth Low Energy on mobile devices and an architecture that ensures that personal data stays entirely on an individual’s phone.

It would be a great step forward if we succeed in creating a Pan Europa Corona App or Apps that can be used or mutually compatible in all European countries, and hopefully outside Europe. That would also be a boost for European and other countries, who do not have the opportunity to develop their own App.

But the two biggest issues are still unsolved:
1 / What additional information must an App provide to achieve the goal of reducing corona infections? Only the MHS, preferably in European consultation, can give a definite answer on this.
2 / Is there a technically qualified solution to make in an App that contributes sufficiently by voluntary use to achieve the outlined goal for the MHS. The European Commission’s toolkit is very helpful, but not enough.
In summary, there unfortunately still seems to be a long way to come to a mature digital solution that serves its purpose and is internationally useful.

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