WARSAW / BERLIN (Reuters) – Governments across Europe are turning to technology to monitor the spread of the coronavirus and to quarantine people, an approach that wants to learn from Asia but also test the region's privacy rules.
From Helsinki to Madrid, applications are being developed that allow people to report their symptoms to doctors and researchers; to detect and model the spread of the flu-like virus; and ensure that those under quarantine stay at home.
But progress is patchy, there is little coordination, and privacy advocates warn that there is a tradeoff between public health benefits and digital surveillance that the European Union's privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is trying to prevent.
Take Poland: the government has just launched a smartphone app called Home Quarantine for citizens returning from abroad who have been required to isolate themselves for two weeks since March 15.
To register they upload personal data and a photo. They then receive reminders via SMS and must respond within 20 minutes by uploading a new selfie. This is verified by face recognition and the location stamp is compared to the registered address.
Kamil Pokora, a product manager who has just returned from a holiday in Thailand to Gdansk, said the police checked him in as required. He also uses Home Quarantine, which is voluntary, but feels it is not working properly.
& # 39; There are a lot of bugs in & # 39 ;, Pokora, 37. & # 39; I keep getting asked to do tasks that aren't even included in the app. It is not user-friendly. "
The Polish data protection agency responsible for GDPR enforcement said it was not consulted about Home Quarantine. Spokesman Adam Sanocki said it would monitor implementation and take action to ensure that personal data is protected if it detects irregularities.
When asked about the criticism, the Digital Ministry of Poland said that it constantly monitored the system and improved it if necessary, aided by user feedback.
Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on Wednesday that the government planned to make home quarantine mandatory for everyone under quarantine.
THE ASIAN WAY
Home Quarantine is copying Taiwan's proactive and hitherto effective approach, which has just upgraded its arsenal with a cell phone-based & # 39; electronic fence & # 39; to keep individuals at risk at home.
Taiwan, which has one of the lowest toll rates for coronavirus in Asia, requires arrivals from abroad to already download a questionnaire and report the airport they are from, their 14-day travel history and health symptoms.
Those at low risk will receive a text message saying they are free to travel. Those considered a risk should isolate themselves for 14 days, checking their compliance using location data from their smartphones.
Under the GDPR, permission to process sensitive personal data must be released and there are far-reaching restrictions on its use. For example, it should not be kept indefinitely or used for any other purpose.
Berlin-based privacy expert Frederike Kaltheuner, a tech policy officer at the Mozilla Foundation, said there should be clear evidence that technical solutions were worth privacy compromises: "In other words, we need to know that these tools really work."
In Finland, the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and software developer Futurice are almost launching a web and mobile service that allows people to report their respiratory symptoms.
The only personal information that people report is their age and zip code, which maps the spread of the pandemic according to the app's supporters. While the government is supportive, it has not yet officially supported the initiative.
Elsewhere, governments are rushing to pass emergency laws to allow the use of individual smartphone data to track contacts and enforce quarantines, even if they haven't yet got the technology to do so.
Slovakia has proposed temporary legislation this week that would make it possible to monitor individual movements during the pandemic.
This represents a huge violation of human rights and freedoms, Justice Minister Maria Kolikova told Parliament, but added that she believed that the right to life was absolute.
Former Prime Minister Robert Fico disapproved of the legislation as a 'espionage law'.
A proposal by German Health Minister Jens Spahn to allow individual smartphone tracking without a court order was blocked by the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition.
& # 39; This would be a broad civil rights violation & # 39; said SPD Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht.
Germany's leading virologist, Christian Drosten, said that using individual location data for contact tracking, such as in South Korea, should still be supported by well-staffed health teams who can interview large numbers of coronaviruses and track down people who may be exposed to them.
Germany doesn't have those resources, so "to me whether we can learn from them is a bit pointless," said Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charite Hospital in a podcast for NDR radio.
HACKATHONS, GRASSROOTS INITIATIVES
Alarmed by an explosion of infections and fatalities, several countries have launched "hackathons" or brainstorming sessions where software developers collaborate to find new technology solutions.
In the worst-hit Italy, the government has called on companies to come up with solutions, while data scientist Ottavio Crivaro is making a basic call for people to donate their data to map the pandemic.
Experts note that some of these issues have already been resolved elsewhere – for example, Singapore has launched the TraceTogether app that collects smartphone location and Bluetooth data from volunteers to check if they have been around someone infected with coronavirus.
A focus on technology can also affect simpler answers.
For example, India allows the use of indelible ink to stamp the hands of people in quarantine – a variation on its system to prevent people from voting more than once in elections.
"There is often a low-tech solution to these problems," said Edin Omanovic, advocacy director at Privacy International, a non-governmental organization. & # 39; With quarantine it is sometimes best to just go and have a look. & # 39;
Additional reporting by Anna Dabrowska, Pawel Florkiewicz, Tomas Mrva, Jan Lopatka, Elvira Pollina, Foo Yun Chee, Isla Binnie, Mathieu Rosemain, Tarmo Virki and Toby Sterling; Written by Douglas Busvine; Edit by Mark Potter