Europe's contact-tracing apps are a test of its privacy-focused culture

European governments must grapple with cultural attitudes and privacy legislation as they use tech to tackle the coronavirus. Germany will lead the way.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read

Germany's contact-tracing app is reportedly almost ready.

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All across Europe, governments are planning the next phase of their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Common to their various strategies is asking their citizens to download an app to allow for easier contact tracing. 

Contact tracing, which typically involves a health worker interviewing an infected patient to track who they've been in contact with, is getting a shot in the arm as governments and companies around the world roll out mobile app versions.  

The app would sit on the phone, running constantly in the background, and make a note of anyone else's phone it comes into contact with. People with the app who test positive for COVID-19 will upload the anonymized list of people they've encountered, and those people will then be sent an alert telling them to self-isolate.

Contact-tracing apps are currently in development across the continent, with Germany announcing on Friday that it'll release its software in coming weeks. France, Denmark, the UK, Ireland and Italy are also working on their own apps, which will likely roll out as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

It's part of a broader effort going on around the world. Countries including Singapore, South Korea and Thailand have previously released their own apps, though their efforts likely wouldn't meet EU privacy standards (South Korea in particular, combined GPS tracking with credit card transactions and facial recognition). Meanwhile in the US, Google and Apple are leading the effort to build a framework that would allow contact-tracing apps to work on iOS and Android.

Each country has chosen to custom build an app to meet its own requirements, though throughout the EU, countries including Italy and Germany are using a platform known as Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) as a common base. The EU also published guidelines on Thursday stipulating how apps should comply with EU-wide privacy standards, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the ePrivacy Directive. 

Privacy is central to the debate about contact-tracing apps. Though they're seen as a key tool for controlling the future spread of the coronavirus, they're also open to misuse and present a potential "creep factor" for people uncomfortable with the idea of the government or a company tracking their location. 

Contact-tracing apps can rely on technologies including GPS or Bluetooth, with Bluetooth being the option preferred by most European countries. Another key attribute to upholding privacy will be ensuring that carefully anonymized data is stored locally on people's devices rather than in a centralized depository.

Watch this: Here's how contact tracing could stop COVID-19

"This is the first global crisis where we can deploy the full power of technology to offer efficient solutions and support the exit strategies from the pandemic," EU Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová said in a statement. "Trust of Europeans will be key to success of the tracing mobile apps."

Looking to Germany

Within Europe, all eyes will be on Germany. German health minister Jens Spahn said on Friday that the country's app will be released in three to four weeks, with Reuters reporting that it's ready and being tested for when lockdown restrictions are lifted. (The German Federal Ministry of Health didn't respond to a request for comment.) The country will be an important test bed for the adoption of contact-tracing apps due to its cultural and legal embrace of privacy. 

A common observation about the country is that, after two authoritarian regimes, in which surveillance of the population at large by the state played a key role, German citizens are suspicious of anything that resembles invasion of their privacy. Cultural attitudes are supported by stringent privacy legislation, which is among the strictest in Europe and the wider world.

Germany also provides an interesting case study because thanks to extensive manual contact tracing and testing, it's succeeded in keeping its mortality rate much lower than those of most other nations. As of Friday, Germany had reported 3,868 deaths from the virus, compared with 28,221 in the US and 13,729 in the UK, even though it had the fifth largest number of confirmed cases globally. The country's response to the virus is being studied in real time and praised by many around the world (though closer to home it's also exposing cracks in the federal system).

But of particular interest to many onlookers, including other European governments, will be whether Germany can encourage adoption of its app. For a contact-tracing app to be effective, a majority of the population (researchers' estimates vary from 50% to 80%) will need to opt in to using it. In Singapore, only around one in six people downloaded its TraceTogether contract-tracing app, said Singapore's national development minister, Lawrence Wong, on April 1.

A strong government campaign with support from the media and ideally little-to-no opposition from privacy advocates will be necessary to build widespread trust in the technology. Most tech companies and governments are in agreement that forcing people to download the app would do the opposite of instilling trust.

Privacy isn't even the only the issue governments will have to tackle when it comes to instilling trust. As with other coronavirus measures, such as social distancing, they'll need to reassure people that the apps will have the desired effect for people to think it worthwhile to opt in (and some of the evidence has been shaky).

"We really need this app and we need to persuade as many people as possible to use it," Christian Drosten, who's both director of the Virology Institute at Berlin's Charité hospital and host of a hit podcast informing the German public about the coronavirus, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

For Germany, which appears to be at a fairly advanced stage of developing its app, and which also must persuade a privacy-conscious populace to download the software, the challenge will need to be tackled soon. If Germany can succeed, the country will provide a model others will likely follow.

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