As Europe mulls Covid-19 monitoring apps, seven fail Dutch tests


Contact tracing app TraceTogether, released by the Singapore government to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) on a mobile phone, in Singapore. The Dutch government is among the European governments considering the use of an app where the public can input data and allow authorities to track coronavirus infections. — Reuters

None of the seven coronavirus tracking apps tested in the Netherlands are suitable for official use, the Dutch Health Ministry said Tuesday, as Europe debates the use of the smartphone technology with one eye on life after the lockdown.

Six of the seven apps had security flaws and one had data problems, Dutch officials told TV station NOS.

A panel made up of technical and data protection experts as well as lawyers and health professionals also said almost all of the apps tested had design flaws.

The Dutch government is among the European governments considering the use of an app where the public can input data and allow authorities to track coronavirus infections.

The app, installed on mobile phones, would be used to warn citizens if they had been near a person infected with the virus. The government has made clear its use would be voluntary.

Such apps are already in use in countries like China and South Korea, and some argue they are crucial to allow some semblance of normality to resume.

With no vaccine for Covid-19 available, experts stress that testing for the disease and tracking will be crucial to manage infections.

A group composed of 187 European Parliament lawmakers called for the use of a single European app compliant with EU data protection standards on Tuesday.

"We must minimise the risk of fragmentation, as these apps will be used across the EU as soon as the European borders are open again," a spokesman for the European People's Party (EPP) group, Axel Voss, wrote in a letter.

Several EU countries have already begun development, as have US tech giants Apple and Google, the centre-right group – the largest in the EU legislature – pointed out. Data collection should be targetted to the virus, anonymized and time-limited, according to the statement.

The European Commission issued guidelines for apps last week, stressing the importance of data protection and interoperability between different EU states.

France is working on a Bluetooth-based tracing app, provisionally baptised StopCovid, which has already made waves.

Technology minister Cedric O has promised that the app will not make any data available to the government "or anyone else”.

But even in President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party, the issue has been controversial, with prominent deputy Sascha Houlie writing in newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche earlier this month that it would be "a lie" to tell the French people that there could be such a thing as "virtuous tracking”.

A debate and vote on the topic is scheduled in the French National Assembly on Tuesday.

The London-based Ada Lovelace Institute warns that it is crucial to get the use of such apps right as they hinge on widespread public uptake and confidence.

"Bad uses of data and technology can do more harm than good," the data and technology organisation's director Carly Kind said.

Evidence is starting to show that people who are excluded from the digital sphere (those without phones, for example) may be "the same people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19”, Kind added. – dpa

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