EU urges voluntary use of virus-tracing apps to speed recovery from pandemic

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission urged EU governments on Wednesday to use COVID-19 contact tracing apps on a voluntary basis as part of efforts to lift border restrictions and revive the European Union’s tourism and travel industries.

FILE PHOTO: A Swiss soldier shows on a mobile device the contact tracking application created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), using Bluetooth and a design called Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T), which will be launched on May 11 by the Swiss Government for easing of the lockdown caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Chamblon barracks, Switzerland April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Countries are rushing to develop mobile tracing apps, hoping that the smartphone technology could help bring about a reopening of borders - crucial to trade - without unleashing a second wave of the pandemic.

That in turn has kindled concerns about privacy breaches and government surveillance long after the virus crisis has eased. The apps use Bluetooth short-range wireless to identify those who have come into contact with people infected with the virus.

The Commission, which is the executive of the 27-nation EU, sought to allay such fears.

“Tracing apps must be voluntary, transparent, temporary, cybersecure, using pseudonymised data, should rely on Bluetooth technology and be interoperable across borders as well as across operating systems,” it said in a statement.

The Commission also set out guidelines to help developers design apps that can work with each other and throughout the EU.

These include minimum requirements for apps to communicate with each other to allow users to receive an alert wherever they are in the EU, and in instances where they have been in contact with people infected with the virus.

The apps should make it possible for health authorities to inform people about their positive COVID-19 test results, calculate users’ exposure risk score, and send out alerts on possible follow-up action.

Worries about apps not being able to work across EU borders surfaced after a spat between France and Apple. France accused the company of undermining its virus-fighting effort by refusing to help make its iPhones more compatible with a planned “StopCovid” contact-tracing app.

Apple and Alphabet Inc’s Google, whose operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones, are working together to create an app to slow the virus spread by allowing users to opt into logging other phones they have been near.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich