friday, 17 april of 2020

Covid-19 - Google

Google pressured by Brussels over privacy in coronavirus tracing apps

Brussels has stepped up pressure on Google to respect EU privacy laws as the US search group joins forces with Apple to help in the development of Covid-19 contact tracing apps.

The US tech companies are working to develop a system that will alert individuals of possible exposure to coronavirus in the hope that this will allow cities to emerge from severe lockdowns and kick-start their ailing economies. 

However, there are growing concerns among civil society groups and EU regulators that the introduction of such technologies — even on a voluntary basis — could lead to abuse and breaches of individuals’ privacy.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s single market commissioner, held a 30-minute teleconference on Wednesday with Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai during which he said Brussels would be scrutinising closely how the service is rolled out in the bloc, according to people with direct knowledge of the talks.

Through the EU’s digital agency, DG Connect, regulators in Brussels will assess potential risks to privacy before the tool is released, which could be as soon as early May, those with knowledge of the discussions said.

Mr Breton warned that the design of the app could “trigger concerns on privacy rules” and undermine the whole venture. While he is in favour of rolling out tracing apps, the commissioner has been vocal in his opposition to the introduction of apps that would track individuals’ movements in real time using GPS technology.

The commissioner sought assurances that Google will abide by the EU’s so-called toolbox, which sets out a common approach to mobile contact tracing apps for members of the bloc.

A version of the toolbox seen by the Financial Times warns that "deployed without appropriate safeguards" contact tracing apps "could have a significant negative effect on privacy and individual rights and freedoms".

It warns that the potential threat to individual rights could be exacerbated by a disjointed approach. "A fragmented and uncoordinated approach risks hampering the effectiveness of measures aimed at combating the Covid-19 crisis, whilst also causing serious harm to the single market and to fundamental rights and freedoms," the paper reads.

During the discussion with Mr Breton, Mr Pichai stressed that Google was "Racing" to develop the application and make it "interoperable" with Apple’s operating s ystem. 

Mr Pichai said on the call that his company was "trying very hard to be private" and that it would adhere to the guidelines set out by Brussels.

Google said: "We had a good meeting with Commissioner Breton last night in which we updated him on our global efforts on Coronavirus, including our work to tackle disinformation across Google and YouTube, how we have helped encourage people to stay at home and the recently announced efforts with Apple around contact tracing, which are designed to be opt-in and to have the highest privacy and security standards."

Mr Breton, who is also holding a meeting with Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook to stress the same privacy concerns, said: "Contact tracing apps can be useful to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But their development and interoperability need to fully respect our values and privacy. I had a good and constructive exchange with Sundar Pichai on this important matter."

(Published by Financial Times, April 17, 2020)

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