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The European Commission has launched a European Union (EU)-wide network to make national contact-tracing apps interact with each other.
The system was developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP – the two bodies responsible for developing the German app, which by July 2020, barely a month after its initial introduction, had been downloaded 15.8 million times.
The EU gateway is designed to ensure that apps will work seamlessly across borders and so users will only need to install one app and will still be able to report a positive infection test or receive an alert, even if they travel to another EU state.
In practice, the encrypted system prevents the identification of an individual person, in line with the EU guidelines on data protection for apps. No geolocation data will be used. To support further streamlining of the system, the EC said it would set up a gateway service – an interface to efficiently receive and pass on relevant information from national contact-tracing apps and servers.
The gateway will receive and pass on arbitrary identifiers between national apps to minimise the amount of data exchanged, reducing users’ data consumption. No information other than arbitrary keys, generated by the national apps, will be handled by the gateway. The information exchanged is pseudonymised, encrypted, and stored only as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individuals.
The gateway was first proposed in April 2020, and as part of a common coordinated approach to support the gradual lifting of confinement measures that had been implemented across the EU, member states, supported by the EC, announced the development of a toolbox for the use of mobile applications for contact tracing and warning in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In June 2020, member states agreed on an interoperability solution for the apps that had been introduced across individual territories. Member states, with the support of the EC, agreed on a set of technical specifications to ensure a safe exchange of information between national contact-tracing apps based on a decentralised architecture.
The aim was that once the technology was deployed, such national apps would work seamlessly when users travelled to another EU country that also followed the decentralised approach. Three months on, the project reached an important milestone, with the EC beginning to test the gateway server and the back-end servers of the official apps from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Latvia.
After a successful pilot phase that was first announced in September 2020, the network – operated from the EC’s datacentre in Luxembourg – has gone live with the first wave of national apps now linked through the service – Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, Ireland's Covid Tracker and Italy’s Immuni.
Together, these apps have been downloaded by about 30 million people, which corresponds to two-thirds of all app downloads in the EU. Also, the developer of the Irish app has seen its technology adopted by a number of states across the northeastern US, most recently New York and New Jersey.
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A total of 20 apps that are based on decentralised systems can be interoperable through the gateway service. They can be linked to the gateway after following a protocol that involves several tests and checks, and an update must be issued for each app.
The second group of apps are scheduled for launch before the end of October. Czechia’s eRouška, Denmark’s Smitte Stop, Latvia’s Apturi Covid and Spain’s Radar Covid are expected to join, and further apps will be linked to the system in November.
Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the EU single market, said: “Many member states have launched voluntary contact-tracing and warning apps, and the commission has supported them in making these apps safely interact with each other. Free movement is an integral part of the single market – the gateway is facilitating this while helping to save lives.”
Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety, added: “Coronavirus tracing and warning apps can effectively complement other measures, such as increased testing and manual contact tracing. With cases on the rise again, they can play an important role to help us break the transmission chains.
“When working across borders, these apps are even more powerful tools. Our gateway system going live today is an important step in our work, and I would call on citizens to make use of such apps to help protect each other.”