While the apps will be optional, developers and policymakers hope the region’s strict data laws will encourage widespread adoption by members of the public and help prevent a new wave of cases once lockdowns are lifted.
Singapore has already successfully launched such an app. It notifies users via bluetooth connection if they have been in the vicinity of someone who has tested positive for the virus.
Across Europe, developers and medical experts are looking to launch opt-in apps that they say will help health officials stem the spread of the virus while protecting personal privacy.
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service told CNN it is “looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organization to do this as rapidly as possible.”
“Our analysis suggests that about half of transmissions occur in the early phase of the infection, before you show any symptoms of infection,” Fraser said. “Traditional public health contact tracing approaches provide incomplete data and cannot keep up with the pace of this pandemic.”
Sky News reported on Tuesday that the app could launch after the UK lockdown has lifted, on a voluntary basis.
The German government is also exploring the use of digital technology, such as a contact tracking app, to help break the chain of infection. Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would be prepared to use one herself.
”It’s clear that it would be on a voluntary basis, but if the testing of these apps shows them to be good… I would certainly be in favor of recommending this to citizens,” Merkel told reporters.
How apps track the virus
Here’s how the smartphone app would work. Using bluetooth, it establishes a list of devices that have been in close contact with each other for a pre-defined period of time set by the country’s health officials, such as 10 or 15 minutes. (Walking by someone on the street would not count as a connection).
If a person is subsequently diagnosed with coronavirus, they note that in the app and their status is verified by a health professional. The app then notifies all the connections listed in the patient’s device, giving them the chance to self isolate or get tested.
Christian Boos, founder of German technology firm Arago, told CNN Business that for such apps to be successful, they need a large data set. That means 60% adoption and the ability to work across borders.
“We are providing this backbone in a trustworthy and well controlled, certified way,” said Boos, who is helping to lead the initiative. The German data protection agency is advising the team on this project, he added.
The app is already being tested in an army barracks in Berlin and should be ready for launch on April 7, Boos said. The team has been working with several governments, with the aim of having every European country incorporate it into their health systems.
Keeping it private
Boos said the European version will anonymize user data and the smartphone’s identifying information. If you test positive for Covid-19, your contacts won’t know that it’s you, only that they have been in sustained contact with someone who tested positive. Unless you choose to identify yourself, that is, perhaps at the request of a health care professional.
And rather than hindering adoption, Europe’s sweeping data privacy and processing rules under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), in place since 2018, could help.
Subhajit Basu, professor in Information Technology Law at the University of Leeds, said GDPR could encourage people to opt in because the legislation promises transparency in how and where your data is being processed, if not total privacy.
“It will give people the confidence that now we have a robust legal framework in place so whenever government chooses, even if it is a Chinese-style individual level location tracking of people, it will comply with the law, within GDPR,” Basu told CNN Business.
But Basu warned that because of the GDPR caveat allowing data processing without the user’s explicit consent in an emergency situation, governments would need to be “much more transparent and ensure this data is kept securely.”
“When you are facing a situation like this, it is critical that we trust our government that people trust the steps our government takes and protection of privacy is critical for that trust,” he said. “If our government takes disproportionate measures it will undermine our trust, it will not work, people will not download the app and won’t update it.”
— Nadine Schmidt in Berlin contributed to this article.