Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

European organization launches to oversee coronavirus, contact-tracking mobile apps

Projects will focus on tackling the current outbreak and future spread through mobile technology.

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European scientists have launched a collaborative scheme to create mobile apps useful in tracking the spread of COVID-19

As first reported by Reuters, on Wednesday, 130 scientists, academics, and technology experts will come together to formally launch the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative.

PEPP-PT, due to be incorporated as a non-profit in Switzerland, will focus on the development of applications that can trace contact and potential COVID-19 spreads across European populations -- not just now, but also potentially in the future. 

Technology and privacy standards, technology itself, and services will be offered to countries and developers for their COVID-19 tracker projects.  

"The virus has spread quickly and knows no political boundaries," PEPP-PT says. "To bring it under control, we must act in the same manner; speed and international cooperation are essential to protect health, privacy, and the economy."

Members include Heartbeat Labs, PocketCampus, Vodafone, 3db, and ISI. 

The wholesale, uncontrolled use of GPS location data belonging to citizens is of concern, as without restriction, there is the possibility of abuse and the violation of our rights to privacy. With this in mind, PEPP-PT is keen to emphasize that the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be honored. 

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PEPP-PT says the following requirements will be met for any app or mobile project under the organization's radar:

  • Well-tested and established procedures for proximity measurement on popular mobile operating systems and devices.
  • Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR compliance, and security.
  • International interoperability to support tracing local infection chains even if a chain spans multiple PEPP-PT participating countries.
  • Scalable backend architecture and technology that can be deployed with local IT infrastructure.
  • Certification service to test and ensure local implementations use the PEPP-PT mechanisms in a secure and interoperable manner.

The UK Information Commissioner's Office has already explored the ramifications of COVID-19 tracking apps and says that it is acceptable for the government to use location data harvested from citizen smartphones -- on the condition that information is anonymized.  

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Whether or not the UK will join this scheme remains to be seen -- as the country has now left the European Union and is in a transition period -- but the government has reportedly held talks with mobile operators over how GPS tracking could be used to plot and predict the spread of the virus. 

However, with the current lack of widespread testing, the data on its own would not necessarily provide any robust conclusions. 

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The country is currently in the middle of a three-week lockdown, to be held under review for a potential extension in the coming weeks. Reports suggest that the UK was considering the launch of a standalone, voluntary COVID-19 tracking app just before the lockdown lifts, whenever that may be. 

Australia, too, has turned towards mobile technology in the fight against COVID-19. The Australian government has launched a coronavirus information mobile application, including a WhatsApp chat feature for the latest advice. 

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