EU wants pan-European virus mobile tracking application

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Europe’s privacy watchdog has called on EU member states to create a single mobile application that can be used to help control the spread of coronavirus without infringing privacy rights.

A number of European governments have already launched applications, powered by anonymised location data provided by mobile operators, but the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) fears this fragmented approach is less effective both in execution and its safeguards.

The capabilities and use of such applications is expected to increase in the coming weeks and months as governments seek to contain the outbreak and ease lockdown restrictions.

EU data tracking

However any expansion in the scale of such tracking will raise raised security and privacy concerns, with some fearing governments could use the data to enable state surveillance. The EPDS has previously said that the use of anonymised data is legal, but wants a pan-European approach in order to ensure that all privacy protections are being enacted.

“The EDPS is aware that a number of EU Member States have or are in the process of developing mobile applications that use different approaches to protect public health, involving the processing of personal data in different ways,” EDPS head Wojciech Wiewiorowski said in a letter to EU governments. “The use of temporary broadcast identifiers and Bluetooth technology for contact tracing seems to be a useful path to achieve privacy and personal data protection effectively.

“Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a pan-European model ‘Covid-19 mobile application’, coordinated at EU level. Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start.”

Last month, several major European telecoms groups agreed to share mobile location data with the EU. These included the UK’s Vodafone, which has networks across the continent, along with A1 Telekom Austria, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Telenor and Telia.

Meanwhile, UK privacy regulators have said the use of anonymised mobile phone location data to help slow the spread of Covid-19 is legal.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.