Coronavirus Apps Must Keep Big Brother at Bay, EU Privacy Chiefs Warn

(Bloomberg) --

Europe’s data privacy watchdogs warned that virus-tracking technologies must not be allowed to morph into dystopian snooping on citizens in the wake of the pandemic.

Technologies should be used to “empower, rather than to control, stigmatize, or repress individuals,” the EU group of data protection authorities said in guidelines, published on Wednesday, which generally support the use of apps to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Automated data processing and digital technologies can be key components in the fight against Covid-19,” the European Data Protection Board said in the guidelines it adopted this week. “However, one should be wary of the ‘ratchet effect.”’

Mobile apps should be voluntary, approved by national health authorities, preserve users’ privacy and should be dismantled as soon as they are no longer needed, the European Commission said in its own guidelines this month. They are part of a broader effort to coordinate exit strategies among member states when they slowly lift existing lock-down measures. Authorities hope to draw on contact tracing apps to facilitate that process.

While some EU leaders have embraced tracking tools, others, like Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, have questioned the privacy implications. France aims to deploy a contact tracing app by May 11, if it manages to convince Apple Inc. to help it remove a technical obstacle that it says is still in the way.

Max Schrems, one of Europe’s most ardent privacy activists, on Wednesday gave his blessing to an app being used in his native Austria, with some 400,000 active users. His group NOYB, with two other organizations, reviewed the product. Schrems in a statement called it “a pioneer in Europe,” that “could also be used quickly in other countries.”

The EU data protection chiefs said they will “ensure that every measure taken in these extraordinary circumstances are necessary, limited in time, of minimal extent and subject to periodic and genuine review as well as to scientific evaluation.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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