Another Point of Contact: The EU battles with BigTech over how contact tracing apps should work

June 9, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Most COVID-19 lockdown exit plans include one central strategy: contact tracing apps. The development of such applications has become a contentious topic, creating a rift between Big Tech companies and many European governments.

What does this mean?

Phone applications are being developed to simplify contact tracing by encouraging users to input data, such as their symptoms, as well as tracking their location. The apps notify users if they have been in the proximity of an individual who has tested positive, advising them to self-isolate and thus preventing the further spread of the virus.

The European Commission has released statements encouraging EU member states to implement decentralised contact tracing technology and organise a harmonised response to tackle the coronavirus. Many European governments have however focussed their efforts nationally, with many favouring a centralised approach. This entails uploading data to a central government server, which would enable health services to have greater insight into the spread of the virus but would place data at higher risk of cyberattacks and abuse. 

Apple and Google have taken a different approach by pioneering decentralised contact tracing technology. Data is stored on users’ phones, reducing the privacy risks associated with the competing strategy. This has come as a shock to European government task forces working on centralised apps. 

It is unknown whether centralised government apps will work with the application programming interface of Apple and Google. As their mobile operating systems have a combined market share of 99.47% (April 2020), it is essential that applications are able to function on their operating systems.

What's the big picture effect?

The development of Apple and Google’s contact tracing strategy has resulted in backlash from some European countries. Cedric O, France’s junior minister for foreign affairs, stated that France does not want to be strong-armed into choosing an approach dictated by “the internal affairs” of Apple and Google. 

Both France and the UK have decided to stand their ground and pursue a centralised app. Germany, on the other hand, has made a U-turn and abandoned its initial centralised app model in favour of the decentralised Apple-Google standard.  Germany has brought in teams from SAP SE and Deutsche Telekom AG to develop a decentralised app to ensure that it will function on Apple and Google’s operating systems. 

The concern over Big Tech’s involvement in the development of a contact tracing application in Europe (read more about Big Tech’s response to the pandemic, here) comes at a time of increased scrutiny, as EU policy makers focus on “tech sovereignty”. 

The plans to achieve tech sovereignty were published by the European Commission on 19 February 2020, in the paper “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future“. Tech sovereignty is the idea that the EU’s digital infrastructure will become self-sufficient whilst ensuring non-European technology providers keep in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  

Due to COVID-19, the European Parliament is being attended remotely and discussions on the new digital strategy have been put on the back burner. However, it is precisely a crisis such as COVID-19 that exposes the need for tech sovereignty and more stringent regulation of tech companies. 

In response to the widespread unease about Big Tech’s influence on European democracy, the EU is likely to reinvigorate its efforts to regulate tech companies.

Report written by Emily Noble

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