While other countries, most notably the UK, struggle to launch contact-tracing apps to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, nations in the European Union (EU) have moved up a gear as they begin initial testing of the previously announced interoperability gateway service linking national apps across the EU.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, member states, backed by the European Commission (EC), have been assessing the effectiveness, security, privacy and data protection aspects of digital solutions to address the crisis.
In April, and as part of a common coordinated approach to support the gradual lifting of confinement measures that had been implemented across the EU, member states, supported by the EC, announced the development of a toolbox for the use of mobile applications for contact tracing and warning in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It stated that contact-tracing apps, if well-coordinated and fully compliant with EU rules, could play a key role in all phases of crisis management, especially when time will be ripe to gradually lift social distancing measures.
And even as lockdowns were eased across the member states, in June 2020, member states agreed on an interoperability solution for mobile tracing and warning apps that had been introduced across the individual territories. The member states, with the support of the EC, agreed on a set of technical specifications to ensure a safe exchange of information between national contact-tracing apps based on a decentralised architecture. The aim was that once the technical solution was deployed, such national apps would work seamlessly when users travelled to another EU country which also followed the decentralised approach.
In practice, proximity information shared between apps will be exchanged in an encrypted way that prevents the identification of an individual person, in line with the EU guidelines on data protection for apps. No geolocation data will be used. To support further streamlining of the system, the EC said it would set up a gateway service, an interface to efficiently receive and pass on relevant information from national contact-tracing apps and servers.
Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety
Three months on, the project has reached an important milestone, whereby some member states have started to test the infrastructure. The EC has now kicked off test runs between a newly established gateway server and the back-end servers of the official apps from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Latvia.
Developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP – the two bodies responsible for the development of the German app, which by July 2020, barely a month after initial introduction, had been downloaded 15.8 million times – the gateway is designed to ensure that apps will work seamlessly across borders and hence users will only need to install one app and will still be able to report a positive infection test or receive an alert, even if they travel abroad.
The gateway will receive and pass on arbitrary identifiers between national apps to minimise the amount of data exchanged and thus reduce users’ data consumption. No other information than arbitrary keys, generated by the national apps, will be handled by the gateway. The information exchanged is pseudonymised, encrypted, and only stored as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individual persons.
The gateway will be operated from the EC’s datacentre in Luxembourg. After testing, the gateway will become operational in October.
“Coronavirus tracing and warning apps working across borders can be powerful tools in our efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19,” commented EU commissioner for health and food safety Stella Kyriakides. “With cases on the rise again, apps can complement other measures like increased testing and manual contact tracing. If used widely enough, they can help us break the chains of transmission. We will not stop fighting on all fronts against the pandemic.”