Following a previous European Commission recommendation to support the gradual lifting of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions through mobile data and apps, on 19 October 2020, the European Commission has set up an EU-wide system for the interoperability of track and trace apps.
National contact tracing and warning apps can play a key role in all phases of COVID-19 management by warning users if they had been in contact with someone who has indicated they tested positive for COVID-19 and giving appropriate health advice. Most EU Member States have developed national contact tracing and warning apps which can be used on voluntary basis.
The new ‘gateway’ system allows these national apps across the EU to talk to each other and exploits the full potential of national apps by moving towards a centralised system where they can be interoperable through a single gateway service.
The design of the gateway system builds on the set of technical specifications as set out in the EU Commission Guidelines for interoperability, EU toolbox and the EU Commission and European Data Protection Board guidelines on data protection for contact tracing and warning apps.
In a set of FAQs, the European Commission described how a tracing and warning app works through generating random ‘keys’ multiple times a day. These keys are then exchanged through Bluetooth technology between nearby smartphones running a tracing app, and stored on the device for 14 days. If one of the users of the app tests positive for COVID-19, this information can be shared to warn others who have been in contact with the user. This is done through smartphones sharing keys generated during the last 14 days with the backend server of the national app. Data exchanged through the gateway is kept to a minimum and does not allow the identification of individual persons or location.
National apps which are now linked through the gateway service are Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, the Republic of Ireland’s COVID tracker, and Italy’s Immuni app.
Users of contact tracing and warning apps can now use a single app when they travel cross-borders and still benefit from contact tracing. This coordinated approach will also help to ensure that the same level of data protection is given to users. However, the effectiveness of this interoperable gateway will depend on how many Member States register their national contact tracing apps with this new service. Ensuring interoperability is technically difficult and may require changes to existing national apps. The connection to the gateway will take place during October and November 2020 with at least 18 more compatible national apps identified at this stage. The UK’s collection of apps are unlikely to be connected to the gateway service due to Brexit unless a separate agreement between the UK and the EU to cover interoperability is put in place. Keep an eye on this blog for further updates!