Germany is pushing for the creation of a smartphone app that will monitor Covid-19 cases across the European Union. Its own plan to create a nationwide system has already raised eyebrows.
The government is working with developers and testers to get the high-tech tool "to the point that we can bring it into widespread use among the population in the coming days or weeks," Head of the Chancellery Helge Braun told local media on Monday. The app has been billed as one way in which a nationwide shutdown to contain the virus could be eased and eventually lifted. The government has said obligatory face masks in public, as well as a limit on public gatherings, would also help accelerate a return to normalcy. The lockdown is scheduled to end on April 19.
Stressing that it would only be a short-term solution to tracking coronavirus cases, Braun said that the EU “definitely” needs a bloc-wide system. "The worst thing that can happen is that there are many different tracking apps,” he argued.
It’s still unclear how such an app would work in Germany, and especially Europe as a whole. Attracting wide-scale voluntary participation in such a program might hinge on whether users feel comfortable handing over personal information, as well as data about their current location, to their governments. Germany has emphasized that any data collected by the app — which will inform users if they are in an area where there is a coronavirus-positive individual — will not be stored.
An employee scans the smart ticket at a drive-in cinema in Essen, western Germany, on March 29, 2020 ©AFP / Ina Fassbender
The plan for an app to track cases in Germany has already come under fire from skeptical citizens. One particularly suspicious observer compared the app to stars of David that Jews were forced to wear under Hitler’s rule, adding that it was “scary” to think about how many fellow Germans might be willing to use the program.
Others said that the seemingly benign tech will serve as a precursor to more totalitarian means of control, including the use of “compulsory RFID chips,” to track people.
A less conspiracy-minded Twitter user noted that the concept seemed bizarre to begin with because a large portion of at-risk elderly people don’t even own smartphones.
Singapore has already developed a similar system which notifies users if they have been in the vicinity of someone who has tested positive for the virus. However, Europe has much stricter data privacy laws which could place limitations on what developers — and governments — are allowed to do.
Coronavirus tracking tech was first embraced by China, where the outbreak began. Chinese apps use QR codes to share information about an individual’s health status and travel history.
If the bloc does adopt a single app, it would mark a noticeable turn-around from Europe’s every-man-for-himself approach to the health crisis so far. Creating a unified front to combat the pandemic has proven extremely difficult for Brussels. Plans to provide aid to hard-hit states such as Italy and Spain have already caused tensions among better-off nations like Germany and the Netherlands. Discussions about easing border restrictions are also reportedly meeting resistance.