Germany backs away 'Centralised' Approach of Contact Tracing, reinforce the idea of 'Decentralisation'

Germany is backing away from a centralized digital contact tracing program it had been considering to combat the coronavirus, saying the effort will only work if people trust that their privacy is being respected. They have adopted a decentralised model for contact tracing.

Reuters reported, citing a joint statement by chancellery minister Helge Braun and health minister Jens Spahn, backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries. 

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FILE PHOTO: A sign with distancing rules and the notice that masks must be worn, is seen at the entrance of a shop, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Erfurt, Germany, April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Karina Hessland

In Europe, most countries have chosen short-range Bluetooth “handshakes” between mobile devices as the best way of registering potential contact, even though it does not provide location data.

Germany as recently as Friday backed an initiative called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), whose centralized approach was criticized by hundreds of scientists in an open letter last Monday as opening the way to state surveillance. “We will back a decentralized architecture that will only store contacts on devices. That is good for trust,” Braun told ARD public television in an interview.

Recommendations from the European Union:

The Recommendation sets out a process towards the adoption with the Member States of a toolbox, focusing on two dimensions:
  • a pan-European coordinated approach for the use of mobile applications for empowering citizens to take effective and more targeted social distancing measures and for a warning, preventing and contact tracing; and
  • a common approach for modeling and predicting the evolution of the virus through anonymized and aggregated mobile location data.

The recommendation stipulates that the common toolbox approach to mobile apps should consist of the following as per Tech News:

  • specifications to ensure the effectiveness of mobile information, warning and tracing applications from a medical and technical point of view;
  • measures to avoid the proliferation of incompatible applications, support requirements for interoperability and promotion of common solutions;
  • governance mechanisms to be applied by public health authorities and in cooperation with the European Centre for Disease Control;
  • the identification of good practices and mechanisms for exchange of information on the functioning of the applications; and
  • sharing data with relevant epidemiological public bodies, including aggregated data to ECDC.

Under the decentralized approach, users could opt to share their phone number or details of their symptoms - making it easier for health authorities to get in touch and give advice on the best course of action in the event they are found to be at risk.

This consent would be given in the app, however, and not be part of the system’s central architecture.