Council of Europe warns of contact tracing app ‘data shortcomings’

The Council of Europe has identified “a number of shortcomings” in the protection of privacy and personal data in the legal and technical measures adopted by governments to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its report specifically looked at the 55 African, Latin-American and European countries which joined the data protection Convention 108. This is the only legally binding instrument on the protection of privacy and data protection open to any country in the world.

Adopted in 1981, the treaty was updated in 2018 by an amending protocol, not yet in force, ensuring that its data protection principles are still adapted to todays tools and practices, and strengthening its follow-up mechanism. Eight countries have already ratified the updated convention and another 34 have signed it but not yet ratified it.

The report gives a technical review of digital contact tracing applications and monitoring tools, calling on governments to ensure transparency of digital solutions in order to ensure respect of the rights to privacy and data protection.

“In spite of numerous calls for coordination and interoperability of digital solutions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have individually implemented widely diverging systems, thereby limiting the efficiency of the measures taken,” noted the Council of Europe.

In most countries, governments adopted emergency measures that gave them extensive powers, usually only for a limited period of time.

“A particularly challenging aspect is the limitation of the purposes for data processing,” stated the report, pointing out that in some countries the boundaries between healthcare and police enforcement purposes have been sometimes blurred.

Of the 55 parties to Convention 108, 26 jurisdictions have chosen a de-centralised approach for proximity and contact tracing apps, while 14 have chosen a centralised approach. Five countries have decided not to use apps at all.

The report also contained the findings of a survey among the states signed up to the convention, on the use of digital solutions to control the dissemination of the virus. Out of the 47 respondents, 36 use apps for contact tracing or proximity alerts (77 per cent), 20 for self-diagnosis (43 per cent), 11 for quarantine enforcement (23 per cent) and eight for mapping travel patterns (17 per cent). Only two countries used apps for crowd control and another two for immunity passports.

Finally, the report welcomed the fact that 20 countries participating in the survey have published the apps' source codes, a measure that can contribute to building the trust of users and to make the apps effective. To further strengthen this trust, the report recommended involving civil society and the general public in the development of digital solutions and transparency measures.

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