Coronavirus is not limited by international borders but most responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have been organised by national governments.
In an article in the German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche on the 31st of July the first trans-national platform for the interchange of Coronavirus warnings was announced by the Coordinating Spokesperson for the European Commission, Johannes Bahrke.
After their recent collaboration on the German “Corona-Warn-App” (which has had 16 million downloads), Deutsche Telekom’s IT subsidiary T-Systems and SAP have been contracted by the EU Commission to develop and run the software to exchange warnings across borders within the EU.
“The contract for development has been signed” said Mr Bahrke “…the companies will now build the gateway together.”
The system will be an “Interoperability Gateway” which required a legal framework to be created and agreed upon for the limited sharing of data between national Coronavirus warning apps, as well as a technical solution.
As with all EU developments this requires permission from each country. So far 12 out of 28 have decided to join the data sharing scheme. The UK is among that group despite planning to leave the EU at the end of 2020.
In the UK a home grown contact tracing app with a centralised dat collection system was tested and rejected in favour of a decentralised system developed by Apple and Google. The use of Germany’s SAP: a European-based multinational technology company that provides cloud-based solutions for companies to get instant access to data and analytical tools may be related in part to the ongoing campaign to break up the monopolies of tech giants, and it would be difficult for the commission to ask Google to collect data after instigating the recent General Data Protection Regulation, in part due to excessive data collection by Google. This way the data collected and passing through the “Interoperability Gateway” will fall squarely within the bracket of EU law, by residing on servers located within the EU.
The T-Systems/SAP solution will be using a decentralised system of data analysis: whereby the possibility of infection by proximity to an infected person with the app will be analysed on the mobile device, will not currently interact with systems reliant on analysis of data on a centralised server as is the case with the French app “StopCovid”. The decentralised method of data collection also provides only an anonymised ID to a central server from the users device.
The main form of data in both centralised and decentralised systems is that of unique Bluetooth app codes. The centralised collection of these codes has led to accusations of government mass surveillance, in France and also the UK, presumably because these sceptics believe that the Bluetooth codes can be tied to a users actual identity, and therefore track the movements of people.
Advocates of centralised data-collection strategies cite the great number of metrics available to scientists as an advantage in prediction of the development of infection in populations, but others have pointed out that the public’s desire for privacy limits the uptake in comparison with decentralised methods, and that if a greater number of people download these apps then it provides analysts with a larger data-set from which to make predictions regarding outbreaks of Covid-19.
The SAP/T-Systems software platform is designed to address the problem of people travelling between countries. The solution allows users of the app to inform others, they were in contact with (even if they are strangers) that they have developed symptoms of coronavirus, and consequently these other persons are warned that they may have contracted Coronavirus and should isolate themselves to stop the further spread of the virus. The system is predicted to be in operation “by late summer”. It is believed that this solution will be able to fulfil its function without compromising the individual user’s right to privacy.
The EU Commission is hoping that during the period after full lockdown when tourism is opening up and businesses are getting back to work that the analysis of anonymised information across Europe will allow for the use of localised quarantines that do not paralyse the economy as a whole and protect the lives of European citizens.