covid-19

Europe-wide standardisation framework for Covid-19 apps

13 May 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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More than 10 telco operators have joined forces under a new European working group in the race to develop interoperable track and trace Covid-19 apps.

The new ETSI industry specification group, Europe for Privacy-Preserving Pandemic Protection, is to provide a standardised framework for developers to build interoperable Covid-19 mobile apps for secure and anonymous smartphone-based proximity tracing systems, that will be crucial to breaking Covid-19 transmission chains.

Nicknamed ETSI E4P, the group will also examine the proposed European Commission recommendation on a common Union toolbox for the use of technology and data to tackle the Covid-19 crisis and lockdowns, in particular for mobile applications and the use of anonymised mobility data.

“By their nature smartphones are highly personal devices, carrying large amounts of data about individuals. In ETSI we are committed to support an international development community with a robust standardization framework that allows rapid, accurate and reliable solutions while winning the trust of the population at large”, said ETSI director-general Luis Jorge Romero.

The proximity of two phones can be determined via Bluetooth or other ultra-low power communication technologies. These measurements can be mapped into a warning system that directly alerts individuals when they have been at risk of exposure to others who have already tested positively for the virus.

The standardisation framework will enable the development of interoperable systems to automatically trace and inform potentially infected users in addition to manual notification methods, whilst preserving users’ privacy.

The group said its work will comply with relevant Data Protection regulation to protect user privacy, and enable interoperability between different proximity tracing and alert systems.

With over 70% of Europeans owning a smartphone, apps have emerged as a secret weapon against Covid-19, but privacy and sign up debates threaten the undermine what they could achieve.

The use of apps to track and trace those potentially carrying Covid-19, has been a popular approach but not one without controversy. The use of Bluetooth – for example in Australia’s COVIDSafe app – has been called “fundamentally flawed”, while in the UK de-anonymisation of patient data has also raised questions.

In some countries, facial recognition technology has helped authorities identify who is breaking curfews by going out of the house during lockdowns.

ETSI – which is a global non-profit with more than 900 member organisations worldwide –said the new group already comprised more than 10 organisations drawn from global telco operators, vendors and research centres from various activity sectors, with more invited to join.