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European coalition to develop “privacy-preserving” tech for contact tracing

PEPP-PT says its goal is to make technical mechanisms and standards available globally as soon as possible.

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In the fight against coronavirus (Covid-19), a European initiative has been formed to develop smartphone proximity-tracing tools which adhere to European privacy and data protection laws and principles.

 

The Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) coalition, launched earlier this week, has more than 130 members across eight European countries. These include Vodafone and institutes from The Fraunhofer Society, as well as other scientists, technologists and experts from international research institutions and companies.

 

Contact-tracing apps, which alert users if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, could be key to curbing the spread of the virus and potentially relaxing lockdown measures.

 

"A health crisis must not lead to a weakening of privacy that so many generations before us have fought for."

 

They have been used in China, South Korea, Singapore and beyond, and more governments globally are now said to be investigating launching similar tools. However, the approach has raised some civil liberties concerns.

 

“A health crisis must not lead to a weakening of privacy that so many generations before us have fought for,” PEPP-PT said on its website.

 

Standards and technology

 

The site explains, “PEPP-PT makes it possible to interrupt new chains of SARS-CoV-2 transmission rapidly and effectively by informing potentially exposed people. We are a large and inclusive European team. We provide standards, technology, and services to countries and developers.

 

“We embrace a fully privacy-preserving approach. We build on well-tested, fully implemented proximity measurement and scalable backend service. We enable tracing of infection chains across national borders.”

 

The collective is working on a system which uses Bluetooth signals to detect when users are close enough to each other to potentially transmit infection. The data is temporarily stored on phones, rather than a central server, and if users later test positive for the virus, others who have been in contact with them and therefore could be at risk can be traced.

 

PEPP-PT’s site says the goal is to make technical mechanisms and standards available globally as soon as possible.

 

No geolocation, personal information or other data are logged that would allow the identification of the user and only local health authorities, deemed ‘trusted’ persons, could download data.

 

This is similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether app but could also be used across borders through the use of country codes.

 

PEPP-PT, which will be incorporated as a non-profit in Switzerland and funded by donations, says its members bring expertise in communication, psychology, epidemiology, proximity tracing, security, privacy, encryption, data protection, application development, scalable systems, supercomputing infrastructure and artificial intelligence.

 

PEPP-PT’s site says the goal is to make technical mechanisms and standards available globally as soon as possible.

 

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