Germany changes stance on centralized COVID-19 contact tracing

Germany is rethinking its approach on how to deal with COVID-19 contact tracing. The new approach is a decentralized system, just like what Apple and Google are proposing.

Privacy watchdogs around the world are voicing their concerns about how countries are implementing COVID-19 contact tracing. While most countries are adopting a more centralized strategy where data are stored into a single server, Germany is looking to find a different solution.

Germany is now looking to adopt the decentralized approach developed by Apple and Google. The two tech giants are expected to release their own decentralized contact tracing apps soon.

The common approach to contact tracing

In many European countries, contact tracing apps are using short-range Bluetooth connections to establish a mesh of network. This approach does not provide location data, therefore ensuring user anonymity.

However, some countries have an established central server where all user information is stored. In this way, they can have total control over tracing data, and it makes it easier to track those who tested positive. While this is an easy implementation, it does jeopardize user privacy.

The main concern over a centralized approach is whether to save user information on individual devices or into a central server. The latter approach will make it easier for authorities to track users who test positive for the COVID-19 virus.

A decentralized approach

What Germany is trying to achieve is create a system wherein all data are saved on user devices, rather than a central server. This way, no central authority has complete control of the data.

The majority of European countries are using the centralized standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT). If tech companies like Apple and Google agree to this arrangement, they will have to tweak some settings on their respective operating systems.

In a joint statement, German Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Minister Jens Spahn said:

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standard and guarantee a high level of I.T. security.”

German’s change of stance on how COVID-19 contact tracing apps should work is well in line with that of Apple and Google. The two tech giants are expected to roll out their decentralized contact tracing apps within the foreseeable future.

The project is called Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing or DP-3T. They will allow users to share their data with authorities to aid contact tracing voluntarily. The decentralized protocols were developed by a Swiss-led team, and are backed by countries including Austria, Estonia, and Switzerland.

Images courtesy of CDC/Unsplash

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