Share article:
Share article:

EU dilemma: Digital contact tracing but only voluntary

Credit: Belga

The full roll-out of digital tracing when lockdown restrictions are phased out may not be happening because of legal reasons.

As previously reported, the European Commission has published a toolbox on digital contact tracing and considers it to be more effective than manual tracing. Tracing by mobile applications is recommended, as the main tool or as a complement to manual tracing, on the condition that they are used voluntarily and comply with EU data protection and privacy rules.

During the coronavirus crisis, the Commission has allowed states of emergency if they are limited in time, proportionate and comply with European values. In fact, a majority of EU member states have declared states of emergency and all of them have imposed compulsory lockdown restrictions to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

Citizens normal rights and liberties have been curtailed to prevent the spread of the virus. Police have been tasked to enforce the restrictions. Only in a few countries, the regimes have used the health crisis as a pretext to suppress press freedom and to grab more power despite EU protests.

Data protection rules seem to belong to a separate category of fundamental rights that cannot be limited for any reason. The chair of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D) said on 7 April that, “Even in these exceptional times, the EU’s data protection principles must continue to apply and be respected”.

He stressed that mobile phone applications “could seriously interfere with people’s fundamental rights to a private life and the protection of personal data, and are tantamount to a state of surveillance of individuals.”

His views were echoed by the European Commission at yesterday’s virtual press conference (30 April). Asked by The Brussels Times if the Commission would consider a derogation from the rules in view of the unprecedented crisis, a spokesperson of the Commission replied that its position has not changed. “It’s a fundamental principle for the Commission. Our toolkit only applies for voluntarily use.”

Other countries that successfully have applied digital tracing have breached data protection rules blatantly. Karolina Klatt, science journalist at the Bertelsmann Foundation, wrote in The Brussels Times (30 April) that “even a democratic country like South Korea seems to prioritize the digital fight against the threat, putting it above the protection of fundamental rights in the current crisis.”

South Korea however is known for a low level of data protection. The government made data on Covid-19 patients freely available on its data portals and private companies used them to program mobile phone applications.

In Israel, despite concerns of future misuse, the government decided to apply a military intelligence application for tracing infected persons without waiting for the parliament to approve it in legislation. Because of the emergency situation the tracing continued but the supreme court has made it conditional on parliamentary legislation.

“It is crucial that citizens trust the applications in order to produce sufficient uptake to make a difference in tackling the crisis. It is vital that, in coming out of the current crisis, we do not create a tool that enables large scale data collection on the population, either now or at a later time,” several scientists from EU and third countries wrote in a joint statement on contact tracing (20 April).

The system must not be capable of collecting, processing, or transmitting any more data than what is necessary to achieve this purpose, according to the statement. The scientists insist that the use of contact tracing apps and the systems that support them must be voluntary, used with the explicit consent of the user.

To avert any “mission creep”, that could result in systems which would allow surveillance of society at large, the scientists recommend a decentralised approach to data storage where the matching of data is done as anonymously as possible and information about non-infected users is not revealed at all.

Besides overcoming the legal concerns, a roll-out of digital contract tracing would also require that a majority of the population has modern versions of smartphones with the necessary Bluetooth and operating systems for installation of tracing apps.

Whether it is done voluntary or compulsory, trust in the government is key. When the crisis is over, the tracing app must be deleted and all data erased.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

Latest news

Brussels Christmas Market will once again return on 24 November
It may only be October, but the news that Brussels will get back its Christmas market this year means that seasonal celebrations with Glühwein ...
New coronavirus infections above 3,000 for first time since May
The number of people testing positive for coronavirus has skyrocketed to the highest rate since the start of May 2021. Between 9 and 15 October, ...
Brussels Airport adds 10 flight destinations this winter
Some 130 destinations will be served from Brussels Airport this winter, the company announced on Monday, just a few days before the start of the ...
Brussels pharmacies report rush on rapid tests due to Covid Safe Ticket
Many pharmacists in Brussels have noticed a remarkable increase in the demand for Covid-19 tests this weekend, following the official expansion of ...
Students filmed naked on ULB campus given a warning
A group of students caught on camera mimicking sexual acts on the campus of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) have been issued an official ...
EU Digital Covid Certificate becomes an international success story
The European Commission adopted on Monday a report on the EU Digital Covid Certificate and its implementation across the EU. According to the ...
Belgian chocolatier agrees to $15 million settlement over misled consumers allegations
Internationally recognised Belgian chocolate manufacturer Godiva has reached a $15 million (€12.9 million) settlement after US consumers said they ...
‘Buying second home does not mean you are rich’: government disagrees on tax break
The Francophone liberal MR party and the Flemish socialist Vooruit party strongly disagree on the current scheme for tax benefits on people's second ...
EMA starts evaluating Pfizer vaccine for children over 5 years old
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has started evaluating an application to extend the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to children ...
Energy prices: EU’s demand and supply dilemma in importing natural gas
The European Commission adopted last week a plan on how to tackle the rise in global energy prices in the short-term while relying on the transition ...
Tram line and cycle path to connect Brussels’ outskirts to airport
Works on a tram line connecting Brussels, the NATO headquarters and Brussels Airport in Zaventem, which could attract up to 10,000 passengers a day, ...
SKYFALL: European police complete counter-drone training in Antwerp
In a joint project between Belgium’s federal police and the Brussels Capital Ixelles Policing Area, 15 European police officers visited Antwerp to ...