Google told to follow Europe’s privacy rules on virus tracing app

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Thierry Breton, France’s European Union commissioner for internal market and consumer protection, industry, research and energy.

JOHN THYS

Google has been pressured to closely follow Europe’s data privacy rules with the coronavirus tracing apps that it’s developing alongside Apple. 

The two tech giants announced last week a partnership to develop tools that will help track the spread of the coronavirus via Bluetooth technology. The idea is to mitigate the number of new infections when lockdown measures are lifted over the coming months. However, the announcement has raised concerns that such technology could breach an individual’s privacy. 

“Contact tracing apps can be useful to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But their development and interoperability need to fully respect our values and privacy,” Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, said after a video meeting with Google and YouTube CEOs on Wednesday.

According to the European institution, Wednesday’s conversation focused on the “full and strict compliance” of the technology with European rules.

Google was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC Friday.

Europe has been at the forefront when it comes to regulating data privacy. In May 2018, the EU implemented legislation called General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has proved to be a foundation for similar rules in other countries.

 The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, published Thursday a document outlining how countries should approach mobile contact-tracing apps. 

Some of the guidelines state that the technology “should be fully compliant with the EU data protection and privacy rules;” should be implemented in close coordination with public health authorities; and “should be installed voluntarily and dismantled as soon as no longer needed.”

The Covid-19 outbreak has helped resurface the debate between privacy and technology, with some lawmakers worried about the implications of tracing technology to users.

In Germany, where authorities are also working on tech that will warn users whether they have been in contact with infected people, privacy advocates have warned about adopting new apps too quickly during emergencies.

A team of researchers at Oxford University said Thursday that contact-tracing apps can work if about 60% of the population uses the technology. Their analysis suggests that adoption rates in places like the U.K. and the U.S. would indeed be above that threshold.    

“Even with lower numbers of app users, we still estimate a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths,” Christophe Fraser, the senior author of the latest report from Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine, said in a statement.

 

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