The European Commission is calling for a pan-European approach when it comes to the use of mobile apps and data to help track the spread of COVID-19.
The Commission, which helps shape EU strategy, laws and policies, today signed off on a series of recommended steps and measures to develop a unified EU approach to using such digital tools. It said that mobile apps and data can play an important role in the gradual lifting of containment measures, for example, but that fragmented efforts have stalled those efforts thus far. The recommendation also outlines key principals for respecting data security.
“Europe is stronger when it acts united,” said Thierry Breton, commissioner for internal market. “Digital technologies, mobile applications and mobility data have enormous potential to help understand how the virus spreads and to respond effectively. With this recommendation, we put in motion a European coordinated approach for the use of such apps and data, without compromising on our EU privacy and data protection rules, and avoiding the fragmentation of the internal market.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, a variety of mobile apps have been developed – some by public authorities, the Commission said – but there have been calls from its 27 member countries and the private sector for coordination at Union level, particularly to address cybersecurity, security and privacy concerns.
The EU has the strongest data protection rules in the world, said Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. Those rules “are fit also for this crisis, providing for exceptions and flexibility,” he said. The Commission “will continue to ensure full respect of Europeans’ fundamental rights,” and is working “closely with data protection authorities and will come forward with guidance on the privacy implications soon,” Reynders added.
The common approach, or a toolbox, as the Commission calls it, focuses on two areas in particular:
One is a pan-European approach for COVID-19 mobile apps. That should include specs to ensure the effectiveness of mobile information, warning and tracing apps for combating COVID-19 from the medical and technical point of view. It should also prevent the proliferation of apps that are not compatible with Union law. The Commission wants this part of the approach developed, together with member countries, by April 15.
The second priority of the toolbox should be a common approach for the use of anonymous and aggregative mobility data, the Commission said. That data is necessary for modeling, or to map and predict the diffusion of the coronavirus and the impact on the health systems in member countries, like ICUs, and to optimize the effectiveness of measures to contain the diffusion of COVID-19.
To that latter effect, the Commission already started a discussion with mobile phone operators on March 23. It wants data fully anonymised and transmitted to the Joint Research Centre for processing and modeling. The data will not be shared with third parties and will only be stored as long as the crisis is ongoing.
As for next steps post April 15, member countries are to report on the actions they have taken by May 31 and make those measures accessible to other member countries and the Commission for peer review. The Commission will assess the progress and publish periodic reports starting in June and throughout the crisis, recommending action and/or the phasing out of measures that are no longer necessary.
The Commission also said the toolbox should be shared with the European Union’s international partners to exchange best practices and to help address the spread of the virus worldwide.
As of April 8, more than 87,000 people have died worldwide in the Covid-19 pandemic, and the number of reported cases is over 1.5 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Besides the United States, Spain, Italy, France and Germany have the highest number of confirmed cases, with a combined 45,403 deaths.