Via Financial Times

A businesswoman takes the Eurostar from London to Paris for a meeting. A cyclist in Geneva rides to the picturesque French village of Annecy. An Italian family heads to the Riviera for a holiday. 

These once-banal trips have something in common as countries seek a return to normal after Covid-19: they are likely to be invisible to public health authorities despite the rollout of smartphone apps to trace chains of infected people.

At fault is the uncoordinated approach to contact-tracing apps taken by various countries and a lack of leadership from the EU on the issue, according to researchers and policymakers involved in the projects. 

What began in March as a modest but collaborative effort between academics and computer developers to create a single European protocol was ultimately derailed by differing national interests, approaches to privacy, and finally the announcement in mid-April that Apple and Google, whose software powers almost all of the world’s smartphones, would launch their own system.

“After all our efforts it is a pity . . . If you had one system that worked everywhere then maybe Europe would be able to open up the borders more quickly this summer,” said Aymeril Hoang, a tech expert who has advised the French on their app.

Instead, the UK, France and Norway have so far opted for homegrown technology to give their health authorities greater data and control, while Germany, Italy, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland have backed the Apple-Google standard. Spain remains undecided.

It is still possible that a solution may be found, for example if the tech companies and the holdout countries reconcile their differences or if everyone falls into line with Apple and Google. 

Brussels is pushing for consensus, but a meeting on Tuesday among telecom ministers and commissioners failed to resolve the schism.

The attempt to build pan-European system began in early March as scientists from institutes such as France’s Inria and Germany’s Fraunhofer started to discuss a way of tracking the virus that would be more palatable to privacy-conscious Europeans than the invasive tech used in Asia. 

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They debated how much and what sort of data should be collected, and how to keep it secure both from hackers and governments bent on surveillance.

By April 1, the group went public and announced that a coalition of 130 scientists from eight countries would create a set of “standards, technology and services” called pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT). It would not collect location data, would comply with Europe’s strict privacy laws and would be interoperable across borders.

But tensions were already brewing behind the scenes over how the apps should function, and especially over what data, if any, they should send to central databases run by national health authorities. 

In Germany, for example, researchers decided early on that the app should complement efforts by officials to trace outbreaks manually, but this would require a centralised approach in which data was shared with epidemiologists. The French also wanted health authorities to have some control.

Others felt that only a decentralised structure was appropriate, where governments have little data access, to minimise the risk of abuse. On April 3, this faction published their protocol called Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP3T).

“Things soured pretty quickly. There was no consensus among the researchers,” said Marcel Salathé, a scientist at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne who was part of the PEPP-PT group and helped write DP3T.

The stakes were raised when Apple and Google said they would launch a decentralised system similar to DP3T. “It was a dramatic turn of events,” said one official. 

Suddenly countries with centralised models had no idea if their apps would even work with the application programming interface (API) from Apple and Google. 

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The German and French teams peppered the companies with questions in video calls and were told there would be just one API, which they feared would wreck their work. “It was a bit of a shock to our consortium,” said one person in the German project, adding that attempts to persuade Apple and Google to accommodate them failed.

Soon Austria and Switzerland announced they would use Apple-Google. Then, in a shock move, Germany decided to switch too. Politicians, including the health minister, Jens Spahn, did not want their app to be left stranded if Google and Apple refused to support it, said people familiar with the matter. Italy was the next domino to fall.

Margrethe Vestager, an EU commissioner, said she was encouraging countries to use “decentralised storage” to ensure the apps would be compatible. “More and more countries are coming to have that approach.”

But France and the UK persisted with their own apps, despite concern that they might not work, after similar ones in Singapore and Australia suffered from incomplete tracing data and drained mobile batteries.

The weeks of debate over contact tracing apps

An image of the UK’s contact tracing app
An image of the UK’s contact tracing app © PA

March 18

The UK is the first EU country to say it is working on a contact tracing app.

March 20

Singapore launches its voluntary TraceTogether app and publishes open source code.

March 31

Oxford university paper argues for contact tracing apps to be used to control epidemic and lift lockdowns.

April 1

The pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is unveiled. Its mission statement is to help create contact tracing apps that are compliant with GDPR and interoperable across the EU.

April 3

The first white paper for DP3T (Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing) suggests keeping all data on mobile phones.

April 10

Apple and Google say they are working on a platform for contact tracing apps, to be released in mid-May.

April 16

EU releases its “toolbox” for how apps should be built and function. Norway releases its app, a “centralised” system that allows the government to collect data.

APRIL 17

Split develops between PEPP-TP and DP3T. Marcel Salathé, a Swiss researcher, leaves the PEPP-TP group. EU parliament calls for apps to be decentralised.

April 18

French and German developers publish their “Robert” protocol for a centralised app online.

April 22

Austria and Switzerland say they will use the Apple/Google system.

APRIL 26

Germany says it will switch to the Apple/Google system.

May 4

UK launches centralised contact tracing app with trial on Isle of Wight.

Mr Salathé was surprised by the acrimony: “I would have hoped that once Apple and Google came out, all efforts on international compatibility would have converged.” 

“Instead it became a weird fight, with some people saying, ‘we’re not going to let these tech giants push us around’. It became not about technology or doing the right thing but about politics.”

With a few weeks to go before apps roll out, a breakthrough is still possible. The Franco-German team recently submitted another protocol to the tech giants, which aimed to assuage privacy concerns, but were rebuffed.

France will pilot its app next week. The UK is testing now but also hedging its bets by developing in parallel another app based on the Google-Apple standard.

“We are not against Apple and Google but we don’t want to be forced into a certain technology approach based on their internal policies,” said Cédric O, France’s junior minister for digital affairs. “States should be able to make their own choices on such a critical matter — it’s a question of sovereignty.”

Additional reporting by Nic Fildes in London and Dan Dombey in Madrid