Public trust key, EU insists, in developing virus apps

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A smart phone broadcasts a live farewell ceremony of Margodt Genevieve, who died due to Covid-19, at the Fontaine funeral home in Charleroi, Belgium, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS – As European countries develop coronavirus tracing apps, the European Union is urging its 27 member states them to make them voluntary and ensure that the many national systems can work together.

The virus has infected more than 850,000 Europeans, killing some 90,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. As countries lift restrictions on movement, tracing whether someone has come into contact with an infected person will be key to allowing a return to normal life.

The use of such apps would do away with the need for the time-consuming, painstaking work involved in questioning people who have contracted the disease to try to work out where they picked it up.

In a new set of guidelines, the European Commission says that public trust is paramount for the system to work because the apps are most effective when many people use them.

“Such apps can only show their full potential if many people use them. Therefore, we want to give Europeans the trust in these apps,” said commission spokesman Johannes Bahrke. “It’s fundamental that the instillation and use of an app is voluntary.”

Concern is rife about the potentially invasive nature of tracking people’s movements or the risk that their data might be shared with unknown authorities without their consent. In the past, European consumer groups have routinely warned about the privacy risks posed by using online health devices.

The commission said the platforms should be managed by public health authorities and dismantled once they are no longer needed. Their use should be voluntary, and no one should be punished for deciding not to download them.

The apps should function through Bluetooth wireless connections and work without any other mobile phone location services being activated. Ideally, data would be protected by state-of-the-art encryption and only be kept as long as needed, the commission said.