Europe Launches App Initiative to Track Virus Infections

BERLIN—A group of European scientists, technologists, and other experts on Wednesday presented a set of guidelines for apps that could help curb the spread of the CCP virus—without infringing on people’s privacy.

Such an app would would alert everyone who had been in close proximity with a confirmed CCP virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus, patient.

The group, called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), says an app based on their standard could help bring life back to normal, restart the economy, and re-open the borders.

To track infection chains via cellphones, some have suggested to centrally store the GPS location data of almost the whole population—a solution that is problematic in Europe because of its strict privacy laws. It bears other risks too.

“Those data would be extremely attractive for criminals because location data in such a high granularity can be used for all kinds of criminal purposes. If I were a criminal, the first thing I would try to do would be to hack that database,” said Matthias Bäcker, professor of law at the University of Mainz in Germany.

Others are concerned governments may be able abuse a GPS location database after the pandemic is over.

However, an app based on the new standard would instead use something called proximity tracing via Bluetooth.

“You create local databases stored on each mobile phone and you do this by using the Bluetooth technology. … And it would actually even be more effective than the other way because Bluetooth data is more precise than GPS data,” Bäcker said.

The app would record and save the proximity and duration of an interaction between people. Later, after someone tests positive, everyone who was in contact with that person would be notified. All data is encrypted and it would be possible not identify individuals.

It’s an approach that has already worked in Singapore. The group hopes to develop their guidelines become an international standard many countries will adopt.

Germany’s justice minister and the federal commissioner for data protection said they support the development of this kind of app, but voiced one key condition: its installation and use must be voluntary.