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COVID-19 Technology Privacy Concerns

Currently, due to the COVID-19 crisis and the suggested technology such as digital contact tracing to help fight the virus, there are concerns that EU citizens will have to choose between privacy and health. However, the EU’s digital chief Margrethe Vestager would argue otherwise.

The European Commission published on 16 April 2020 a guidance on the use of mobile applications in addition to the data protection considerations for such mobile applications. In the documents, specific details on the mobile applications was detailed to say that location data should not be used in contact tracing. Additionally, the mobile applications should be dismantled as soon as they are no longer needed, can only be voluntary for participation, and must abide by the EU privacy laws of GDPR and ePrivacy Directive.

Furthermore, the data protection documents stated that data should be stored on an individual’s device and encrypted, rather than on a central server. The national Data Protection Authorities should also always be consulted while an app is developing for these purposes.

However, there is growing fear around using certain mobile applications to help fight the pandemic, even after the EU issued a series of recommendations for the exact use of such tech. The Commission recognizes how trust is vital if the applications are going to be adopted and effective on a broad scale. In addition to trust, transparency is vital in order to build that needed trust by certifying that the applications do only what they say are doing and no more.

The EU contact tracing software, the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), has already come under criticism for a lack of transparency. The software brings together a consortium of EU researchers to research to possibility of using Bluetooth handshakes between smartphones for contact tracing. The consortium however removed text on their website highlighting the commitment to using a decentralized protocol in the technology, which is widely regarded as having higher privacy protections.

Commissioner Vestager however remained hopeful that even though there are transparency and trust issues, that mobile applications for contact tracing will be developed and used on a board scale to help fight the virus. Of course, the dedicated tracing apps raise multiple technical issues, but ethical questions that also must be considered.



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